Thursday, July 18, 2013

Approaching Apollo, 44 Years On

July 16, 1969: As a space-crazed nine-year-old, I rode in a Piper Cherokee borrowed by my dad from his employer in Vero Beach, Floriida, to watch a streak of fire grow from Cape Canaveral while an announcer shouted, "And Apollo 11 is off for the Moon!"  (My snapshots, alas, showed only sky.)

July 20, 1969: My parents kept waking me up as I tried to stay up to see the first step on the Moon. I think I dozed through it.  I still marvel at the first man on the Moon.  Could any hero in this day and age be so humble? Neil Armstrong was not a recluse: he merely avoided the limelight that his gregarious co-pilot so enjoyed. 

1996: At a space conference in Albuquerque, I am presenting my vision of low-cost rides to space for academic and scientific satellites using surplus ICBM stages.  About halfway through, I notice a man has slipped into the front row. He wears a bright red sportcoat and a big Buzz Lightyear button.  He is Buzz Aldrin.  Later, as the moonwalker signs my paper in the Proceedings, I ask what he thought of my idea.  "It's a good idea," he said, "but the company I'm working with has a better one."  Irony: Buzz's company fizzled. A version of my idea is flying today.  Who could have guessed?  (I've met Buzz on two other occasions, and he was always a great guy.)

July 18, 2013: I wonder what the hell happened. Not just technologically, but where is the imagination, the spirit, the willingness to challenge the unknown?  If you offered me a chance to fly to Mars with only 50% odds of survival, I'd get in line right now.  But NASA would never let me go. We can't agree on a destination for human spaceflight or even how to get Americans to orbit without paying the Russians for rides. We seem to have taken to heart Q's words to Captain Picard, "You'd better go home and crawl under the bed. It's not safe out here."   

The horizon is still there, "the Land of Beyond, that gleams at the gates of the sky," as Robert Service once wrote.   We are meant to explore. We are denying who we are. 

Neil, Buzz, Mike: You are still my heroes.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Reaaaaaly late comment, but great blog post. I too and saddened by the grim reality that the single most important thing about space flight is that we (The USA in particular) no longer seem to be willing to make any sort of sacrifices to accomplish anything. If something doesn't help me right now, this instant, I won;t support it seems to be the standard belief. I'll miss both Aldrin, Armstrong, and the generation they represent.