Monday, July 20, 2009

Outer Space and Inner Motivation

Today is July 20, another partly cloudy day in Streeterville, another mid-summer day with all the usual markers of that event. The lake is blue. The sky is blue. Navy Pier is packed with visitors and tourists, spending money wildly, trying their darndest to get the economy back on track. Assorted boats are floating. Runners and bikers are running and pedaling to their hearts' content. Life is good and it is 74 degrees at the Mini.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon's surface and Armstrong uttered those now famous words, "One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind," although he now claims that he actually said, "One small step for a man," and the word a was lost in the recording of it. Did he say it? Did he leave out a word? Who cares? It was still a momentous occasion.

In the ensuing 40 years, we have become accustomed to busing astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station. The Russians have their space ships. We have our Space Shuttles. Astronauts and scientists galore go back and forth between this little outpost in the vacuum that we call outer space and the safety of the atmosphere protected planet below. A couple of gazillionaires have even paid to take a space tour, albeit short.

Aside from the Americans and Russians, the European Space Agency, the Japanese, and the Chinese have all launched satellites. We have all become dependent on satellites, for communications, for GPS devices to show us how to get from place to place, for weather prediction, and scads of other things that I probably have not mentioned. There is so much junk floating around out there in orbit around the planet and there are so many flights going back and forth to the International Space Station that I'm amazed that there have not been space collisions, prompting State Farm and Geico to enter a bidding war over who can provide the cheapest and most complete space collision insurance.

We have satellites. We have space stations. We have orbiting telescopes so sensitive that they can see to the ends of the universe. We have orbiting space junk that occasionally deteriorates in its orbit so that it comes blazing through the atmosphere in a flaming arc. We have sent robotic flights to Mars and beyond, to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, and even beyond that. Yet we do not return to the moon. We do not set up little scientific colonies there. We have resisted sending men beyond the meager orbit of the space station.

After our robots landed on the surface of Mars and poked and probed and tested, and sent back photos for all to see, there has been a lot of talk about sending men to Mars. This falls into the category of "I'll believe it when I see it." It costs a lot of money to send men to Mars. We can't get people to pay the taxes necessary to provide healthcare for all in this country. Far too many people are opposed to funding a trip to Mars, for what? For scientific research? To what end? What's in it for me?

Then there are those who still refuse to believe that man ever actually walked on the moon. There is a significant minority in the United States who choose to believe that Neil Armstrong's moon walk was produced in a studio with all the wizardry and artistry that Hollywood has to offer. They choose to believe that the government did this just to make us feel good about the accomplishments of our country at a time when we were losing a war in Vietnam and many feared the Communists were going to win the Cold War. Needless to say, these individuals are not supporting a move to send men to Mars. I suspect that many of these persons also are global warming deniers. I suspect that many of these persons put our little excursions into outer space in the same category with Captains Kirk and Picard of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek.

Bearing all of this in mind, that "Giant Leap" begins to look like a baby step that got us a lot of useful technology for living our lives on the planet Earth. It got us out of the atmosphere proper to enable us to do some serious research beyond the constraints of air and gravity, but it has not moved us to "boldly go where no man has gone before," as The Enterprise does on a regular basis in that fictionalized future of TV and movies. I just have to say that, if the tiny steps we have taken out of our atmosphere, into orbits around the planet have produced the wonders we take for granted 40 years after those first steps on the moon, who knows what trips to Mars and beyond may yield? Who knows what wonders our children's children will be able to accept as normal? Who knows? Maybe we'll actually figure out how to build machines to conquer the vastness of space and time, and really "boldly go where no man has gone before." Maybe we will one day actually discover other sapient beings in this vast universe and cease to feel so alone, so insignificant in that vast vacuum. Is that really so radical?

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