Wednesday, July 15, 2009

40 Years Ago Thursday July 16

The mightiest engines ever built... still breathtaking to watch after 40 years.

I wrote these lines February 1, 2003 on the occasion of the destruction of the Columbia Space Shuttle:

I have no mind for mathematics. I am not mechanically inclined. Whatever appreciation for science I have is largely aesthetic. I like traveling less and less as I get older. I'm getting more phobic (heights, sharp things, fire, etc.) and more timid with each passing year. My views and politics are probably far to the left of most mechanically inclined prosaic can-do types. And yet, I have always been an enthusiastic supporter and admirer of space exploration. That has not changed with today's catastrophe. My most vivid and happiest historical childhood memories from the 60's were not of the Counter-Culture (I was far too young and too remote from all that) and certainly were not of the Vietnam War; they were of the Space Program. I followed all those space flights with relish from John Glenn in Friendship 7 to the last Apollo flight to the moon in 1972. I even followed all of the now forgotten missions of the Gemini program. That is the only aspect of the 60's that I feel privileged to have lived through and witnessed. All of those mighty projects to put men on the moon were ultimately peaceful despite their Cold War motivations. They brought people together in a great civilizing enterprise of exploration. They were great works about something other than war or commerce (even though they began in war and benefited commerce).

Exploration was always risky since the first ancient Polynesian or Viking or Phoenician or Chinese or Greek or Arab set sail in uncharted waters. The bones of lost and luckless explorers litter the frontiers in history. Space is vast, disorienting, hostile, and implacably alien. Exploring even our small part of it is lethally dangerous. People died and will die again trying to push back that frontier; several Russian cosmonauts, the crews of Apollo 1, the Challenger, and now the Columbia. I am so grateful for people with the courage and spirit to risk their lives to take a small light up into that immense darkness. I salute all those who try to expand the realm of the possible for all of us puny little mortals; even when they die trying.

And that great triumph of exploration 40 years ago was full of risk. The success of the whole project depended on the skill and the courage of the 3 pilots, even with all the best technology that 1969 could offer. Those astronauts were not payload. The only reason that the Lunar Module didn't crash into the surface of the Moon as it ran out of fuel was Neil Armstrong's superb piloting. The astronauts were the ones ultimately responsible for the happy outcome of the whole mission.

I've often wondered why we haven't returned to the Moon, and I always come to some sour conclusions along the lines of we're all too busy making money to bother with exploration. But, despite the predictions of a certain movie that came out the year before Apollo 11, space travel in the 21st century is anything but routine and banal. Space is still a lethally dangerous, hostile, alien, and disorienting immensity. We are creatures of gravity, and of Earth's atmosphere. We are not built to survive where there is no air, no ground, and no up or down. We are still trying to figure out how to adapt our technologies and ourselves to spending the time in that environment necessary to travel beyond the confines of our own planet.

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