22 July, 2009

The power of wonder

Oh where, oh where has this gone?

There's an interesting piece today in the LA Times ("The final American frontier" by Ted Anthony of the AP), exploring our waning wonder for space exploration. It's not really remarkable anymore when the space shuttle launches and images of astronauts space walking and doing other astronauty things are no longer broadcast live (or even at all). But it ought to and they should be. I mean, how many people do you personally know who have orbited our planet (one of the estimated trillions in the universe)?

We are 40 years older now, we Americans. And many things have changed.

The final Apollo mission came home before Nixon resigned. Skylab fell to Earth. Challenger disintegrated going up, Columbia coming down. Kennedy's New Frontier ethos — space as a kinder, gentler Manifest Destiny — slouched into the "Alien" catchphrase: "In space, no one can hear you scream."

Today, the reasons for Americans to pay attention to the ground, rather than the heavens, can be rattled off like a parody of a Billy Joel song. Terrorists. Global warming. Swine flu. Economic collapse. Nukes in North Korea and mass shootings in the heartland.
We didn't (couldn't?) keep the fire going. And then the $64,000 question: "Is space, the final frontier, still the American place to aim for?" Well, you can guess my answer. The article cites a 2006 Gallup survey, in which nearly half of Americans said the money spent on the space shuttle program would have been better spent on something else, and 13% basically said "hell no" to funding any space exploration.

$how us the money. But first a slight segue...

I didn't fully get the story of Pandora and her box the first time I read it in middle school. I thought Hope should have been set free along with all the plagues, since escaping is what activated them - how could we hope if it was still trapped in the box? But then I realized we don't hope, we have it. You can't own something unless you have a place to keep it. Which brings us to the National Air and Space Museum:

Walk past an actual Apollo landing module and think: How in heaven did we land on the moon in something like this? It looks like a foil-and-tarpaper float built for a homecoming parade.

And then, if you can get to the front of the circle of people ringing it, stand in front of the actual Apollo 11 command module, Columbia.

Then pause, and listen to the voices around you.

"... actual re-entry capsule ..."

"... Collins stayed in the command module ..."

"... looks like a beehive on the bottom ..."

"... can't believe someone did that ..."

In German and Chinese, Japanese and Hindi and, yes, American English, they marvel still at this conical piece of mottled metal that traveled so far. They pose for pictures, shoot video.
The fire isn't dead, the embers just need stirring up.

You see, it's what I like to call trickle down science. It's not just science that benefits from funding science. Thanks to space exploration we have satellite technology (tv and radio), global communications, pacemakers, better golf balls, solar photovoltaic energy, Tang (and by extension, KoolAid, Crystal Light, etc) and Velcro®. Of course, we didn't exactly know all that at the time exploration and the Apollo missions were being funded, but we've all benefited in these and countless other ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment