Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shoot for the Moon

Several US astronauts, including John Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth, have sent a letter to President Obama urging that funding for MANNED space programs be continued – including the specific goal of sending a manned mission again to the moon. The aging space shuttles are being retired soon; in fact the “Atlantis” shuttle recently made what is expected to be its final flight. Future service missions to the International Space Station will be conducted through purchasing space on Russian rockets.

This is a very sad turn of events for me as it appears that I will have witnessed both the zenith and the nadir of the manned space program within my lifetime.

I was a kid in Boy Scout camp when I first watched the Russian Sputnik satellite orbit overhead; it looked like a star moving slowly through the sky. It frightened Americans that a hostile nation (Russia) could potentially develop a strategic advantage over our national security. Looking back at that time when our Military-Industrial Complex was fanning the flames of the Cold War, I see today that our fears might have been greatly overstated. Nonetheless, it did spur our leaders to take a more aggressive effort to move man into space even though the true motives at the time might have been intentionally unclear.

Space travel was every young boys dream back in the 1950’s. Astronauts were our heroes, our role models. I remember when Disney came out with a series of space travel educational animations: Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond. In entertaining Disney style they explained the complex physics of space travel; acceleration, weightlessness, mass, cosmic rays. I couldn’t get enough of it. Just a few years ago Disney released the Tomorrow Land series on DVD. I promptly bought the set.

Then in what for me was a most profound stroke of luck, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on my 20th birthday, July 20, 1969. It seemed that the heavens were calling specifically to me.

But over the decades the inertia to break from the bounds of our planet has fallen into obscurity. The Shuttle program might even have fallen victim to its own success. I recall that the original goal of the shuttle program was that commuting to and from space would be considered routine. It accomplished exactly that.

Serious planetary scientists will agree that, in all practicality, it is far more cost effective, pracitcal and safer to send unmanned vehicles to explore our universe. The Hubble telescope has been immensely more successful in accumulating scientific data than was originally imagined. Other unmanned probes have traveled for decades, skirting the back yards of the planets and their moons. The earliest of our missions have now traveled entirely out of our solar system. Yet we are no nearer to sending humans on such long and risky missions.

And yet unmanned probes, and the remarkable information and pictures they send back, don’t quite touch that core sense of true “exploration” that exists within our hearts and minds; it doesn’t address that strong desire within us as a species for placing a human foot on unfamiliar soil for the very first time.

Astronomer Neil DeGrasse-Tyson recently on TV decried the loss of funding to our manned space program. He also had been inspired to science by the lure of adventurous astronauts severing our tie to Mother Earth. DeGrasse-Tyson worries that with the elimination of the manned space missions, where will our young people look to today to inspire adventure like those heroes who inspired us back in the 1950’s? Where now are the new frontiers?

I have often confessed to my children that I believe that my generation has seen the best times that Man has ever had, and ever will have, on this planet. The demise of the manned space programs is one of many losses that I believe move to confirm my sense of loss.

Oddly Blogger has recently been mysteriously losing comments, not sure why?


Gorilla Bananas said...

But even during the moon landings people soon got bored of it, so the Apollo 17 crew started playing golf on the moon, which was a futile gimmick. I don't see the point of any more manned missions until warp drive is invented and humans can find a planet worth exploring. One with rivers and glades and beautiful green-skinned succubi.

The blogger comments problem is widespread - one assumes they are trying to fix it.

secret agent woman said...

I watched Armstrong's landing when I was a little girl - I'm here to tell you it wasn't just every boy's dream to fly in space. In a way, it doesn't seem a practical use of limited resources when we can't get health care to everyone or stop oil from flooding our seas. I'm all for continuing remote exploration, but not sure about just having people land on the moon over and over. Still, when and if we do re-vitalize th space program, I hope to hell we can lose expressions like "manned" missions since that is in no way a gender-neutral term.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas Golf on the Moon... indeed, quite silly. One would expect now that a moon mission would entail setting up a base camp with the idea of further planetary and space exploration. Not in my lifetime, though.

SecretAgent I think Obama is quite correct, we have much more terrestrial problems which need addressing and funding.

Of course our current "manned" projects include women; top scientists, in fact. One of the things I loved about the entire Star Trek series was the whole egalitarian aspect to it, not only gender but all ethnicities, including those from other planets, were included. As father to three daughters, the concept of equal gender opportunity is not lost on me.

Marylinn Kelly said...

So much of life comes back to balance, to allocate finite resources for the greatest good, but how much is squandered - without either health care OR peopled space missions becoming reality. A recent documentary on the repair of the Hubble, and a recounting of its discoveries to date, was such a reminder of all that remains outside our knowledge. I guess I will keep hoping for wisdom that allows us to keep seeking while seeing that those who dwell on this planet are cared for.

The Mother said...

etLeibniz was also convinced he lived in the best of times (preRevolutionary France).

Every generation feels that way. I think it all keeps getting better, in spite of everyone.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn The quest for knowledge should never stop. It may be that our tiny steps outside our atmosphere evoke stronger emotional values than scientific. People with feet firmly planted on this planet are coming closer each day in learning more about the expanse of the cosmos and the inner workings of the sub-atomic. The Large Hadron Collider may even bring a Black Hole within arms reach for examination. Remarkable!

Dr. Mom I guess one's perspective toward either optimism or pessimism might depend on the context. That science and technology is advancing is encouraging. Yet the number of Americans who eschew evolution is growing; we are slightly better than Turkey in this respect. And American children lag far behind other countries in math and science.

Add to that the bleak job picture and the recognition that many of those lost jobs are gone for good, the rising deficit, the two-decade long decline in income as adjusted for inflation. I'm seriously not all that optimistic about our future as a world power or the world our grand kids may inherit.

The Idiot Speaketh said...

I agree with the part about our generation. You never really appreciate the history you have experienced in your lifetime until you sit down and think of all the historic events that you witnessed while growing up. Kids today have no clue.

Mary Witzl said...

Secret Agent Woman is right -- it wasn't just little boys who had that dream. I remember writing fan letters to a couple of astronauts when I was six. Kids who were still running around in their brothers' Davy Crockett hats looked so pathetic; the cool thing was space rockets.

What about plumbing the depths of the oceans? That's still left to do! And don't forget figuring out alternative energy sources and replacements for plastics -- that ought to keep 'em busy.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Idiot Indeed, some of the expansion of the freedoms that our generation saw come into being are taken for granted by the younger generation... who risk losing them if they don't remain vigilant.

Mary You and Secret Agent are right. Back in the 1960's though we still lived in a world of the predominant male/female gender stereotypes. Although I did launch my sister's Barbi into my own space programs, safely landing her on the roof or our house. My father had to get the ladder to bring her safely back to earth and my sister. It was a painful lesson for me, I recall.

Entre Nous said...

I have not had the NASA channel for a year and I miss it terribly. There was nothing more beautiful than seeing that shuttle flown in for a landing, a huge, overweight glider with only one chance, perfectly sliding onto terra firma with the American flag on it's sides. The sight of it glowing with the massive heat created by re-entry into earths atmosphere was fascinating as the radio communications calmly continued through the enormous shut down procedures.

Although Hubble is the best thing that ever happened to astrophysicists as far as attempting to prove, through mathmatical data, their theories (and that is basically the best most of it will attain) it can pnly 'prove' theories. A theory is not a fact.

Without actual space travel, how will we ever truly know, if Einstein's Theory of Relativity is the answer to end all, or if it is relative only to this planet, this specific environment alone?

Or has society reached a socia-ecomonic-ignorance block relating to important knowledge, as opposed to ignorant comments I have heard, such as "The money could be better spent elsewhere." Where? The bottomless pit of national debt?

If these things are so much more important and relative, why didn't Warren Buffet recycle his money here, in the United States, where he earned it?

I think the answer is clear.

I'll get off my soap box now and put on my T-Shirt with the Bull's Eye on it..... !

Robert the Skeptic said...

Entre Nous In the scientific realm, the use of "theory" describes a fact: ...a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity is consistent everywhere in the universe. The recent discoveries of "dark matter" and "dark energy" actually serve to reconcile Special Relativity to the observable universe.

Down to earth, I feel the growing national debt is a serious problem as it means that much of our (tax) revenue is going to waste (interest). That said, funds could be carved out of Defense to NASA which I think would be FAR better spent pursuing knowledge than war.

I hope none of my arrow were sufficient to pierce your t-shirt.