Saturday, October 24, 2009

I'm Not Happy with My T-Shirt

It's October twenty-second, two thousand and nine. That's forty years, three months, and two days since the voice of Neil Armtrong heralding, "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" emiminated from the lunar surface and reached my four year old ears back here on earth some 1.29 seconds later. Forty years hence and by my estimate the giant leap for mankind has never occurred. Mankind has done nothing with our trip to the moon, really. We've got Tang instant breakfast drink, no one really drinks it any more, Sunny-D seems to have won in the Vitamin C infused orange flavored drink department. We've got Velcro. But since parachute pant's left center stage in the mid-eighties most of us only use velcro when we are rolling up an extension cord in the garage. What happened? Dare I say...what the hell happened? It took less than a decade to reach the moon and it has taken us four decades to consider a return trip. And if we let the system decide, don't hold your breath, I doubt we will go back anytime soon.

How then, was our brief foray into space exploration, a giant leap for mankind? The short answer, it wasn't, not yet anyway. It was a technological achievement of the highest order, but we solved one problem and nothing more. The challenge was, take a man to the moon and bring him back safely, before the end of the decade. But beyond the vision statement set forth by JFK in 1961, we fell flat on our face. It wasn't a giant leap for mankind because mankind wasn't ready for the giant leap. What we did jump, unfortunately, was the shark. When the big science and engineering experiment involves driving a golf ball on the lunar surface, it was clear that the mission lacked strategic vision with regard to why we went out there in the first place -- which wasn't really the goal at all, to go, was it?. The goal was to go and return, safely, or so we thought.

Every ounce of energy that went into the Saturn V rocket was required so that a small command capsule containing three astronaughts could splash down in the Pacific Ocean after the 500,000 mile journey. Alan Sheppard striking a golf ball on the lunar surface, was the moment it was clear, we had no idea what to do with the achievement, the moon missions had "Jumped the Shark". Three missions later and after December 1972, man has never been out of low earth orbit again. As we look back we can clearly see that it was a case of been there, done that, got the t-shirt. And unfortunately there was no leap for mankind. It was just a three day lunar vacation for a few lucky astronauts. They went and returned safely. Mission accomplished -- there was never a plan for what's comes next. Four decades later and we still haven't figured out what's next. We never knew how to exploit the Amstrong prophecy. We had forgotten that JFK, had challenged us with a bit more, but we stuck to the problem at hand.

So does taking a larger leap, perhaps a leap to Mars fulfill the prophecy? Not if it means we are not staying. To go means to go. Not to return. The few who have really thought about what it means for mankind, to go, to really go, do not apologize for their seemingly calous attitude regarding the lives of a space fairing generation, if we raise one. It's easier to bring humanity to Mars if we don't have to bring them back, and it cost's less. The leap for mankind, the real leap, is to begin the colonization of the solar system. The moon in definitely the first step. That is the problem we must embrace as a humanity, as a mankind. I can go to Disneyland, I can bring back the t-shirt. That doesn't mean I live and work at Disneyland -- that's the real dream isn't it. The childhood fantasy. Like running away to join the circus. Sure you will return home one day, perhaps, to regale your friends and family of the tales of the great adventure, but everyone goes to Disneyland these days, and they come back with a t-shirt.

Neil Armstrong can tell everyone he took the small step, Alan Sheppard can tell his grand children he pitched out of the sand in the Fra Mauro Formation, but neither can tell the world they established the leap for mankind that should have come from such a tremendous accomplishment. Although in fairness, if we give Columbus the credit for discovering America, it was another 115 years before a colony was established at Jamestown, VA. And, once we do make the permanent leap into the heaven's, these great explorers, and golfers, will have their place in human history. And when the colonization of the new world finally did begin, it wasn't about tourism. When you went to the new world, you were in, all in. You brought your family with you. You were not coming back. This is the leap we must consider when it is time to go back to the Moon or to Mars. We must not go to Mars to drive golf balls in the red sand. We must go with a purpose not simply to prove we can. That's the leap, that's the vision, that's the Armstrong legacy that must be embraced by our humanity. It is the leap, that if we had only heard a bit more of JFK's speech, that "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space..." that perhaps we would have not simply have been satisfied to simply return safely.

Space exploration is not about climbing mountains. It's far more than the drama of risky achievement, first to the North Pole, first to the Top of Everest. We don't go to the moon because it is there, unless we are wealthy thrill seekers. I think we confuse adventurism with exploration sometimes -- Societies such as National Geographic do not really distinguish the two. I think they exploit the excitement of extreme adverturism for their own profit and confuse the rest of the world's understanding of purposeful exploration with that which is pure adrenaline and ego. Yes there are some parallels, but when attempting to justify a higher purpose, a higher calling for mankind, we should stick to purposeful exploration and leave the adrenaline junkies at home.

We are at a crossroads. With a scarcity of funds and a very uncertain future for the manned space program at NASA, we must ask do we continue to put off, as a people, the leap for mankind that truly means we are no longer Earthlings? Or do we simply remain happy with our t-shirt?


tintin said...

So, what do you suppose Isabella and Ferdie said after Columbus came home..."Yo, Chris, where's my tee shirt?"

Chris's "New World" made Castillian Spain VERY rich...after some time. I'd disagree with your 150 year figure...the Spanish were extracting blood and treasure from the new world as soon as it made economic sense. As soon as the population or resource pressure is high enough, we'll go back--and probably not a minute sooner.

The "space race" was, unfortunately, a twisted artifact of the Cold War...not really the first steps of a fledgling spacefaring humanity. It is regretable, but true. Until then, the tee shirt is all you get.

Mooch said...

Water on the moon baby. It's not blood but it may be treasure. We need to make haste. Space 1999 -- it's time for that base.

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