Posts Tagged ‘Space Program’
Posted in Home Base, tagged City Lights Books, Jack Kerouac, Marin Headlands, Moon, NASA, North Beach, Olema, Photography, Point Reyes, Point Reyes Lighthouse, San Francisco, San Francisco Bay Area, Shuttle, Space Program, Stinson Beach, Travel, Vesuvio on July 6, 2010| 4 Comments »
Once Upon A Dream
… and the journey starts with a vague imagining of what the day will be … what remains is to see what those dreams end up becoming in the real world … I’m looking out over the reservoirs, northwest toward Twin Peaks … clear skies with only the hint of haze … Saturday morning, Fourth of July weekend … 2010 …
… here I are … here we is … me and she, 7:00 AM, coffee brewed, dinner prepped … hop into the Buddhamobile, go larking … up O’Shaunessey, quick right and left at the top, then up the winding, bumpy track to the summit of Twin Peaks … sun’s rising, city waking up … we can see the Marin Headlands, the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers over the hills of the Presidio …
…birds flitting about in the crisp air, scattered people milling in small clumps … I yawn, take a sip of coffee … then we’re off, gliding down the other side, first north, then west … into the Inner Sunset, through the Park and the Richmond and we’re on the Bridge and across and we’re dropping again, descending into Sausalito, cruising along, sea level now, sunlight sparkling off the gentle waters …
… Mill Valley – climbing again … then over and down, skirting Muir Woods , descending into Muir Beach, and then climbing yet again and we’re off, swerving north along the coast, Hwy 1, hugging the coastline of slowly disintegrating rock, the cold, deep blue color of the Pacific a framing contrast to the mix of stone and dirt and vegetation. In the distance the horizon is thinly veiled by the sea mist, and we breath in the fresh scent of the sea through the open windows.
We’re descending again, winding our way into Stinson Beach. We turn left at the market, into the parking area. It’s still early, around 9:00, and there’s plenty of open spaces. We walk out on the beach, to the waterline. The ocean is calm, its energy muted, the wet, flat sand seeming to stretch out in the distance, maybe a quarter mile, the tide is so low. The beach is empty; the lifeguard towers shut. I try to imagine this place in another few hours and then stop: if I want to think about crowds of people, I can go back to the city …
“Time to go.”
She smiles and nods and we’re gone.
Where Dogs Rule…
“Huh?” I say after narrowly missing a bicyclist. They’re all over the place, and I really wish the roads could be a little wider.
She points. I see the sign.
“Stu’s not going to be very happy when he finds out.”
“Don’t tell him, then.”
“You know I will,” she grins.
We cruise by a number of residences.
“It would be a bad idea. He would insist on stopping at every house, wanting to meet the mayor.”
“Yes,” she nods, her expression thoughtful. “A recipe for trouble.”
“Indeed. It would not end well, I’m sure.”
Olema is found where Sir Francis Drake Blvd intersects Hwy. 1. The impression is a comfy clump of buildings built around the intersection, with Earthquake-inspired names seen here and there on establishments.
The Buddhamobile passes through the place almost as quickly as Dogtown.
We’re on Sir Francis Drake Blvd now, and we pull into the parking lot for the Point Reyes National Seashore’s Visitor Center, found in, appropriately, the community of Point Reyes Station. Large barn, information center, gift shop and small, well-done museum. I linger by the skull of a whale and she mentions it probably is a good thing we didn’t bring the boys. I nod in agreement.
“Dogs and large bones never go well together. Likely catastrophic fail.”
We pass on the short hike out to where the 1906 Earthquake left a scar, electing to move on.
Skirting the northeast shore of the peninsula, along Tomales Bay and into Inverness and I see it. We stop again, behind a grocery store, near the shore, where the large boat lies abandoned, tilted about 25 degrees.
“Rust and ruins.”
She smiles, grabs the camera, heads out without a word, already caught up in what she’s doing. I lock up the Buddhamobile and follow, finding her roaming about a number of boats resting on trailers, focused, finding bright colors of decay, taking shot after shot.
Lots of rust.
I watch her and wonder – if Heaven were real, would it be like this moment for her?
And we’re off again and headed inland, leaving behind the shores of Tomales Bay … trees and residences thinning as we make our way west, soon giving way to wind-swept fields of scrub and grass … under the magnificent blue of the sky the world of muted browns and greens seems almost gray. The scent of the sea is more intense than earlier, fed by strong winds coming out of the north and west.
It’s a lonely land, dotted here and there by weathered structures, homes, barns, utility buildings.
“Cows,” she says. There they are, behind fences, along the roads. We discover there is a lot of bovine life residing here. We come over a rise and then down, taking in the artificial lake and the crowded set of buildings sheltered by the surrounding hills to the west, north and east. We slow, examining the quiet, wind-swept cluster of structures huddled about the road.
“A party. How come we never get invited?”
“Table manners,” I offer and she nods and we accelerate, climbing up and over the next rise to see the road wind on in the distance.
At the End of the World
Finally, we arrive. In my imperfect memory, I recall my last trip here, a quarter century earlier with my not-yet-first wife, on the small 250 cc Suzuki, driving up from the city. All in all it seems the increasingly saddle-sore trip home stands out in the murky theatre of my memory. I also have a hazy recollection of being able to drive the motorcycle all the way in to the lighthouse, but maybe I’m mistaken and now I’m reminded of perspectives, of how we see the world, more specifically how we relate to and reshape the past. In my twenties, trips anywhere were to places I’d probably seen before, just a few months or years earlier. Everything usually looked the same, just as I remembered. Now, after having been absent for so long, approaching the end of another decade of life, I’m momentarily taken aback by the sense of time, the space between visits, a quick, momentary collage of what happened between,a separate, almost alien-life, all left behind just as that 25-year-ago day fades in time and memory …
We park and get out. The wind is strong and constant; we grab sweat-shirts. The temperature isn’t too bad, around mid-50s. We, being seasoned coastal residents, understand the value of wearing layers in the world of Bay Area microclimates. You can tell the tourists: they’re the ones shivering in T-shirts … we see one woman wrapped in a baby blanket; some guy cocooned in a sliver space-blanket.
I look back the way we came. We’re high up here, presented with a panoramic view of the peninsula: the long, straight beach, empty, disappearing in the distance; the land, a combination of sand and soil and sparse, wind-swept vegetation, looking blasted and empty and gray; beyond and to the south the lighter blue of Drake’s Bay, hazed over with the vaguest of ocean mists, turning the distant shores to the south into a product of mirage, leaving Bolinas a shadowed rumor of land.
Something about this is unsettling, oddly compelling. The feeling sits outside perceived things, in the shadow of unconscious awareness.
There’s a road that hugs the right side of the hills, a worn stretch of narrow, pocked asphalt; to the right of that graduating fields of shrubbery and scrub that end at a uniformly sharp drop. The ocean is far, far below us. There is no path on the south side – everything is steeper here, the drops much more shear and sudden, ending in broken rock hundreds of feet below.
Being sensible sorts, we elected to climb the spine of the hill, up past the antenna tower with covered dishes pointed everywhere north, east and south. Toward a second series of rises we intersect the road and join the rest of the visitors as they trudge their way to the edge of the world.We make our way under cypress trees, bent by the constant winds, then past the Ranger residences until we’re at the lighthouse buildings.
From text borrowed from the California Lighthouse website …
A Coast Guard public information pamphlet published in March, 1962 noted that “Point Reyes Light Station was established in 1870 at Point Reyes, Calif., 19 miles from the nearest town of Inverness. It is a family station with a complement of four men who maintain a first order light, fog signal and radio beacon. The light tower itself is a sixteen-sided structure of forged iron plate (the original tower) bolted to solid rock. The top of the lantern is 37 feet above the ground and focal plane of the light is 294 feet above sea level. To reach the light, men assigned must descend 304 steps on the headland from the plateau above the station where the family quarters are situated. The quarters are new, two-story, four-family units (four-plex) built in 1960. The four-plex contains two 2-bedroom and two 3-bedroom units. Buildings maintained on the property, in addition to the family quarters, are the fog signal building, engine room, pump house, paint locker, double garage and a four-car carport with adjoining office and work shop. Point Reyes is, by official records, the windiest and foggiest on the Pacific Coast. The station is frequently blanketed by week-long periods of fog and few years pass that do not see violent gales of 75 to 100 mph strike the area. Point Reyes Light Station is one of the District’s outstanding tourist attractions. On fair summer weekends we often have several hundred visitors logged aboard. Escorting visitors has become a major portion of the duties of men assigned. Dependent children on the station travel three miles by station vehicle to school. Commissary and post exchange privileges are available at Hamilton Air Force Base (the nearest armed forces installation), or in the San Francisco area.”
We climb all the way down to the lighthouse, 309 steps (there are five more than the source above mentioned – and, no, we didn’t count – the stairs are numbered every tenth step, like they want to really torture you on the way back up). They – the Park Service – claim the descent is equivalent to the height of a 30-story building, but I think it is closer to 20. We spend a lot of time, all over the place, checking out the sights, the buildings, the rust.
Rust and ruins.
We’re at the edge of the continent, thrusting out into the Pacific. I try to imagine the significance of this place for someone living 150 years ago. The universe was a lot smaller then for the human species … experiments with electricity and magnetism were primative; the light bulb was years off … men (and women) had yet to visit the poles, summit Everest … travel was by steam trains, and sailing ships still graced the oceans; Clipper ships had recently astounded the world with their record 90 day trips from New York to San Francisco via the tip of South America during the California Gold Rush … Mark Twain had yet to write Adventures of Huckleberry Finn … Jules Verne was dreaming of glass towers and calculators and trips to the moon … It is difficult to touch that time, to imagine a world void of what we think of as even the simplest things …
In that world, 150 years gone, this place, much more difficult to reach for them than for we happy travelers, must have seemed bigger than life.
Now, it’s just a place to visit.
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
~ T.S. Eliot
We’re walking back on the path, descending the last slope to the circular parking lot. We got here at a good time; there are many more cars parked on the road leading to the lot, and beyond them the long ocean beach and near-empty desolation beyond.
“Purgatory,” I say in sudden recognition.
The land is barren, looking inhospitable, lonely, desolate.
“Purgatory … a visualization of an idea, a concept. This looks like it would make a good purgatory, what with the wind and the emptiness.”
And the land is empty, the waters before the steep cliffs and sandy beaches heavy with whitecaps, the whole mass disappearing in the distance – the mist washes everything over … and I’m feeling time with a little more awareness, sensing the idea of the finite. I’m not a geologist, but I ‘get’ erosion. I ‘know’ I’m watching things play out in slow motion … very slow motion … and some time in a distant future wind and water and earthquake will win the battle, cutting and clawing their way across and into the land, until everything I see below me fades or slips beneath the waves, and the peninsula is replaced by a set of islands that in turn fade from geologic history, leaving open water in its wake.
Everything ends. All of it.
We’re driving again.
“My big memory of the Space Program is Challenger blowing up,” she says. “One moment it’s climbing and the next I’m asking myself: ‘Did the Shuttle just blow up?’”
We’re cruising through Limboland. I can’t shake the image that caught me on the way back to the Buddhamobile … the idea takes up residence in my imagination, hanging a creative ‘no-vacancy’ sign in my consciousness. I’m not depressed; just feeling out-of-sync with things.
It’s still cold outside, and my free hand touches hers in absent caress as we move along the road, finding soft, warm comfort in this small intimacy.
We are talking as we make our way along the hilly, windswept landscape of the peninsula. The desolation is all so cold, yet oddly reassuring, touching a place I visit more often these years …
“I cut school and I watched.”
I look sideways at her.
“More cows,” she adds, pointing.
I grunt and focus on the road, muttering something inappropriate about cows under my breath.
“I never got that,” I say.
“The whole indelible image thing.”
She looks at me, her expression curious. “Indelible image?”
“Yeah. The idea of the indelible image. The Challenger explosion was an indelible image etched in the collective consciousness. The concept never occurred to me. Like I said, we – my generation – we grew up with space. It was all about getting there. We’d had set-backs, like Apollo 1 – but it wasn’t something that lingered in the public imagination; there were no images, no visuals to pop up in your memory. And the Russian accidents were more rumor than conformed reality, though I doubt it would matter to the American public – they were the Soviets, after all.
“We – my generation, the Baby Boomers – we never had that: the indelible image – negative – burned into our minds when we were young that lingered with us about the Space Program – not even Apollo 1. Instead, we got the realization of the dream – photos of Armstrong on the Moon, the American Flag planted in Lunar soil, earthrise from the orbiting Apollo – all positive stuff, our indelible images, in concert with the realization of one of the oldest dream of mankind – to get to the moon.
“And Apollo 13 making it back – that was huge. Apollo 13 washed away the lingering taint of the Apollo 1 fire, gave the sense the program was too strong to fail.
“Oh, I’m sure we knew eventually something bad would happen, but by then we understood there were going to be setbacks and loss of life – Apollo 1, again – but it was from a perspective of success.
“That understanding carried on for a long time, the sense of success.”
I’m silent a moment, smiling tightly.
“Then Challenger blew up.”
“Yeah,” she says. “And everybody was watching. It was a big thing, a teacher going into space. Everyone wanted to see.”
We slow down: some cows have gotten out of the fields and are wandering about the road edge, munching on grass, oblivious to the wind, dully regarding us as we glide past. I wonder if Hitchcock could have done something with this … after all, he’d filmed ‘The Birds’ just north of here, in Bodega Bay.
Why not ‘The Cows?’
“Yeah,” I echo. “The teacher.” I experience that feeling where I suddenly “get” something at a core level, excited with the switch of perspective even while experiencing the sinking sense of what that understanding tells me of the current resident of the White House’s perspective of the importance of space exploration and manned missions to orbit and beyond.
And on another, unrelated ADD level I remind myself we do this all the time, forgetting the difficulty of perceiving change.
“More cows,” she observes.
“Yeah, yeah,” I reply and on the disc player Morrison sings of Riders of the Storm …
Been that way for a while, but we had things we wanted to see before the crowds got there.
In Olema, at the crossroads of Hwy 1 and Sir Francis Drake Blvd, we find the Farm House Restaurant (& Bar) (The Point Reyes Seashore Lodge) that looks more respectable than the two of us on a good day, so, of course, we check it out. We sit in the bar, order drinks, kick back and enjoy each other’s company as we’re watching the tourists lining up to sit and the help trying to seat them, young girls, looking busy and bored all rolled into one package. I sip my ale, with wistful regret remembering a time when pretty young things such as these fetching fems seemed desirable … now they’re pleasant to look at, but way too young to be all that interesting and I distantly wonder at that change even though I know what it is, then look across the table at my lovely traveling companion and stop thinking about it; I am more than lucky.
I just am.
The temperatures are a bit higher here – high 70s as opposed to mid-50s with a wind chill we were experiencing earlier. I feel comfy, sort of wishing for some place to stretch out, take a nap. The Mt. Tam Light Ale goes down, cold and refreshing, and she sips on her lemonade thoughtfully as we talk about stuff. Her BLT arrives and she attacks it with dainty gusto, while I savor me a very tasty grass-fed burger (… and how the heck do you feed grass to a burger, anyway?).
Loves me some Olema …
HIPPIE FROM OLEMA
Jessie Colin Young
Jessie Colin Young / Youngbloods
Well i’m proud to be a hippie from olema
Where we’re friendly to the squares and all the straights
We still take in strangers if they’re ragged
We can’t think of anyone to hate
We don’t watch commercials in olema
We don’t buy the plastic crap they sell
We still wear our hair long like folks used to
And we bathe often, therefore we don’t smell
Well i’m proud to be a hippie from olema
Where we’re friendly to the squares and all the straights
We still take in strangers if they’re ragged
We can’t think of anyone to hate
We don’t throw our beer cans on the highway
We don’t slight a man because he’s black
We don’t spill our oil out in the ocean
’Cause we love birds and fish too much for that
And i’m proud to be a hippie from olema
Where we’re friendly to the squares and all the straights
We still take in strangers if they’re Haggard
In olema, california, planet earth.
Finished, we jump back in the Buddhamobile and zip up Sir Francis Drake, a half-hour east through steadily rising heat until we reach San Rafael and 90 degrees, then south on 101 and back across the bridge past all those cars leaving the City crowded bumper-to-bumper and then we’re in the Richmond District for fresh sourdough french bread from Boudin’s on Geary and whatever, and then downtown where we park the transportation and hoof it into North Beach. Temps are lower, high 60s with wind. Comfortable in the sun, not so much in the shade. The streets are alive with people. Drinks in Vesuvio’s while sitting in the upper section, looking down on Jack Kerouac Alley and at City Lights Bookstore and the mural painted on the side.
There’s a street vendor selling ‘North Beach Art’, a slim woman in her 50s or 60s, pretty, tall and thin, wearing the living of her life in her features, gray shocks of hair above her forehead, gray-blonde everywhere else, like Rogue later in life. She sucks on a cigarette, the cancer stick seeming a perfect and appropriate prop, chatting with an older street musician, who absently picks and strums at his guitar while talking with her.
My companion suggests she’s probably got her act together, and I nod in agreement. Something about the woman looks strong and determined. But I wonder what lives beneath the shell we see. A younger woman appears, turning the corner, headed up JK Alley, looking self-assured.
“She looks like she has it together, as well,” I remark.
“Not as much as the older one.”
I nod, looking at the older woman, then back to the blond with the sleeveless t-shirt and jeans with shredded knees who has stopped and now is lighting a cigarette. “No. But she could be a younger version of the vendor.”
My companion sticks her head out the window, scrutinizing both women. “Yes,” she says after a moment. “But the older one has got more going on.”
“Yeah,” I nod. “Living a while does that. Sometimes.”
We watch a while longer as the vendor packs up and leaves, a short lesson in compressing what looks to be a lot of stuff into a manageable, movable package. We finish our drinks, settle up and cross the alley and enter City Lights and exit a little later and a little poorer and happier. We walk northwest on Columbus on crowded, table-lined sidewalks, passing restaurants, mostly Italian, emitting rich, garlic-laden scents, warm and sweet and mouth-watering enticing. At Union we turn right and walk east to Grant, then turn right and south. More window shopping, past drinking establishments, loud with late-afternoon inebriation.
There’s a blues band playing in one, and we take a moment to sample.
And we meander back to the Buddhamobile and head home to BBQ, salad and thick, tart San Francisco sourdough bread …
Posted in Science & things, tagged astronomy, Constellation, Cosmos, History, Hubble, Hubble Telescope, ISS, Mars, Moon, NASA, Obama, Orion, Photography, Research, Science, Shuttle, Space Program, Space Science on February 13, 2010| 5 Comments »
“Honorable Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen:
Happy New Year!
“Indeed a happy New Year beginning the 11th year in the Age of Space, greatest era of our race – ”the greatest!” – despite gasoline shortages, pollution, overpopulation, inflation, wars and threats of war. ‘These too shall pass’, but the stars abide.
“Our race will spread out through space – unlimited room, unlimited energy, unlimited wealth. This is certain.
“But I am not certain that the working language will be English…”
– Robert A. Heinlein, speaking before the Congress of the United States on the subject of NASA Spinoffs, August 19, 1979, later published in Omni magazine and Expanded Universe (1980) as Spinoff.
I recently lost a Facebook friend.
Everyone has hot-button issues. Two of the three that tend to get me going are
1) Creationists insisting religious writings equate with science and;
2) people claiming there are compelling arguments to dismiss Global Climate Change (Global Warming) when, in fact, there aren’t any that haven’t been thoroughly examined in the scientific court of peer review and shown to fail.
The third hot button, the one that is pertinent re the FB friend-loss, is the claim that NASA is a waste of money.
My reply when Seamus (not his real name) said this on FB was:
“Seamus, you don’t know what you are talking about.”
Okay, so I could be called for being mean and rude. It was a thoughtlessly flip comment responding to another flip and very, very tired cliché that people use when they want to say they don’t like NASA or space exploration in general but really don’t know the first thing about why they don’t like it beyond the unqualified assertion it is a money waste. In a series of polite emails following-up my extraction from Seamus’ personal universe of social media connections I pointed out that if he felt I was being rude, he should call me on it, and I would apologize immediately … and then gone on to point out why he didn’t know what he was talking about. (Tact was never my strong suite, in case you hadn’t noticed.) Anyway, he’s not talking to me, which is too bad: Seamus is generally a good guy and I do kinda miss him. But things be what they be and we carry on.
Ironically, at least in the spirit of making the best of an otherwise bad outcome, the incident provided me with a nice little lead-in to something I did want to talk about, to wit:
President Obama is canceling the Constellation Program, his predecessor’s initiative to get the U.S. back to the Moon and to Mars while providing a replacement to the Shuttle Program, which will be retired after this year.
To start, I really want to concentrate on how the “too expensive” tag underscores a fateful problem we seem to have as a species … we don’t look too far down the road. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not being a Pollyanna about things; I fully understand space exploration is a huge, frightfully perilous undertaking, demanding a commitment of resources, fiscal and material, which even in the best of times can be unsettling and during a deep recession that may be permanent for many, downright insulting – at least in terms of apparent short-term outcomes. These are certainly not like the good old days when a Queen Isabella could pawn a necklace and start the greatest adventure of the Western World to that time, the Age of Discovery, a development that in many ways spurred the Age of Enlightenment. The Queen’s was an investment that resulted in untold wealth that to this day continues to be realized.
And, yes, I know it’s a shitty comparison. The exploration of the Americas also coincided with one of the nastiest long-term genocides in recorded history, as well as the virtual rape of the American wilderness – the former born out of an innate xenophobia that seems to reside in us as a species, and the latter from a general ignorance of how the biosphere sustains us and a misplaced belief that we “own” things. (We don’t, of course. Ownership of nature is a non-sequitur; if anything, nature owns us. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself a simple set of questions. Could nature survive without us? Could we survive without nature? Unless you are an idiot or willfully ignorant, you get it.) These are ugly aspects of human history, and of our evolutionary behavior as a species … and certainly not unique to this one example. But this is who we are. It’s up to us if we want to be better.
There’s another, more positive commonality about exploration that seems significant … it tends to coincide with the growth and vitality of a population … a nation. It is, in part, a reflection of the inspired genius of a people, perhaps even their spirit.
The previous administration’s proposal for going back to the Moon – the Constellation Program offering the vague promise of using our satellite as a jumping-off station for Mars – wasn’t necessarily an idea I was a huge fan of, given as the project was underfunded from the start and, likely, more an invention of cynical election year politics than any desire to open up the final frontier. Besides, I’d seen the mess the president made of his two invasions and the New Orleans disaster, so I wasn’t too encouraged …
Then again, the Shuttle Orbiter program was not funded as well as it could have been. That inconvenience led to delays, increased expenses, and cutting of funding to other space science. NASA, for example, has miles of tape from space missions that have never been analyzed because the money isn’t there, and those tapes are deteriorating – data we paid for lost because of underfunding. It’s all rather unfortunate.
Yet despite being underfunded, the Shuttle built the International Space Station. Not just that: the Orbiter put satellites in orbit; countless scientific experiments were conducted that benefited scientific and medical research; methods of working in zero-gravity, often involving complex tasks, were developed. Invaluable experience was gained for the future.
Perhaps most pleasing and important of all, the Shuttle put up and maintained the most wonderful invention in the history of man: the Hubble Telescope. Nothing … and I mean NOTHING … has brought us closer to seeing the immense, intense beauty of the reality we inhabit as we ride this infinitesimally small piece of flotsam adrift in the celestial ocean. That perspective alone is almost worth every penny spent on space from the very beginning of space exploration.
In spite of obstacles, the Shuttle was a success. It was what it was supposed to be, a workhorse that delivered and assembled payloads in orbit, conducted repair and resupply missions, and generally did more to maintain mankind’s regular presence in orbit than any other launch vehicle in the short history of space flight. Maybe the question that should be asked is if could it have been a greater success had it been funded like the moon project?
Nuts & Bolts
First the earth was flat
But it fattened up when we didn’t fall off
Now we spin laps round the sun
– 2-1, Imogen Heap
There are very basic things our forays into space have brought us, weather satellites being amongst the most obvious in terms of what they provide us regarding preparedness and protection for populations. As bad as New Orleans was when Katrina hit, imagine how much worse it would have been without the solid data provided by the orbiting observation posts. That’s just a small portion of the payoff. These orbiting instrument platforms – and their cousins, the scientific research satellites – provide us with a copious amount of data regarding the state of our planet, data that invariably profits us.
I mention elsewhere E.O. Wilson’s comment that to sustain the planet at a level the U.S. consumes goods would require 3.5 to 4.5 planets. Here’s an irony to chew on – a committed effort to expanding out into the solar system would likely provide us with a significant source of raw materials we’re going to need if we are going to survive long into the future … and maybe even a place to escape to.
“In all scientific research, the researcher may or may not find what he is looking for – indeed, his hypothesis may be demolished – but he is certain to learn something new . . . which may be and often is more important than what he had hoped to learn.
“This is the Principle of Serendipity. It is so invariant that it can be considered an empirically established natural law.”
– Spinoff, Robert A Heinlein
When compared to government funding in general, the amount of money spent on space exploration and research is insignificant. Most government cash goes to social programs, infrastructure, corporate welfare, entitlements, endless domestic and international programs … and defense budgets that burn up NASA’s miniscule funding by the end of the first day of the fiscal year … or thereabouts. In truth, if you took your time to really figure out where your tax money went, you’d be both stunned, and likely forced to reevaluate the myths of how government spending is allotted that most people accept as gospel truth.
More important: money directed at space actually offers a return on the investment. Science. Science provides potential for real return … and has delivered on that promise at every opportunity. Just look at your electric light and think about it. Every electronic device you own, much of modern diagnostic medicine, agriculture, you name it … Space Program spinoffs exist somewhere in the lineage of all of it. The work done to get to the moon altered industry and medicine as research results generated technological innovation across the board.
Consider this, as well: People who touch our lives in so many meaningful ways – friends, lovers, siblings, parents, children – might not have been alive to do so without the spinoffs of medical research developed in the effort to get humans off planet. Medical spinoffs contribute to the early detection of disease, treatment, and general improvements in quality of life for sufferers of chronic illness
Bluntly, the cost argument is bogus. NASA – and by extension all government-funded science and scientific research – at least produces results that show a potential for return on investment. It’s hard to come up with another agency that can make that claim. And if the U.S. government doesn’t then take proper advantage of these research results is not the fault of NASA; what we’re really discussing is a failure of imagination on the part of bureaucrats, not the science. The results produced are real. Our technology, the growth of our knowledge of the Cosmos, the countless experiments performed over the years, the experience we gained in engineering and working in space … the fact thousands of people are alive because of techniques and equipment borne out of the Space Program research – these things all point to a program that gives something back.
Here’s the thing I guess I have the most difficulty with: trying to get people to see long-term perspective. My friend Mikey and I often puzzle at the shift when we talk of the oddness of living in a time where people are not excited by the prospect of a growing population of humans in space and all the potential such a reality could offer. By contrast, he and I grew up in an era charged by a sense of amazement and wonder, carried by a dream that lived in mankind since we first looked to the sky and saw the moon. It was fueled in part by the real-life-fact of it, and the imagined possibilities, going back to Cyrano de Bergerac and long before.
When I was a child, Mars was still an amazing and mysterious dream of fantasy. And this was well before exposure to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels (Bradbury got me first – what an wonderful collection of stories, imaginative, whimsical, breathed upon with deep dreams touched by both the otherworldly – and the familiar.)
Growing up, Martian canals were still big in the public imagination; heck, 20 years earlier Orson Welles got the East Coast to shit a collective cow over his reenactment of H.G.’s masterpiece. And as I grew older, I watched as the space program started undressing the Red Planet’s secrets … hers and the rest of the solar system. We peaked within Venus shroud to see the incredible geography while learning her atmosphere would eat us alive. We sent Mariner 10 to fly through the frightful solar radiance that washed over Mercury. We sent probes crashing into the moon, then landing, finally putting men on the moon.
Men on the Moon.
What a fucking fantastical statement.
And we didn’t stop. For all of the significance, the Moon landing was an appetizer. We had bigger fish to fry. Viking 1 & 2 went to Mars. And then, in the most exquisite of cosmic ballets, first the Pioneers and then the Voyagers – two craft each – visited the Jovian planets. I remember the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn … there were parties … Bikers and bankers, dweebs and sharp-dressed men … people hung around TVs, at home, in clumps in bars, watching the photos as they processed in, listening to mission control as the scientists and engineers monitored the great adventure light-minutes behind the actual events …
listening as we waited for the signal that told us Voyager successfully passed through the recently-discovered rings of Jupiter … and then of Saturn …
… and it was us up there … represented, yes, but it was US … YOU and ME and EVERYONE ELSE sailing the cosmic ocean … and we were navigating the gravity wells orbiting our home star.
As a species, we were being amazing!!!
I’ll repeat this, ’cause if you don’t get anything else I say here, you really need to understand this:
WE WERE BEING FUCKING AMAZING, GODDAMMIT!!!
More fucking amazing than we ever had been in our long, amazing history.
Even with all the extra-planetary missions to the inner, rocky worlds of the solar system, after actually putting six pairs of human beings on the moon, nothing hit home like the Pioneer and – especially – the Voyager missions. We were seeing the Jovian worlds up close and personal, our miniscule craft of exploration sailing through the ring-systems, past small moons, through radiation storms, sending back images and data to the waiting humans on our distant planet.
Jupiter and Saturn … and eventually Uranus and Neptune … were no longer points of light in the sky to be mistaken for faraway stars … these became real worlds that inhabited our local neighborhood in the Milky Way … and in the end changed how we looked at the cosmos.
We could see our future, could see where things were going to lead us.
But we never really got out of near-earth orbit.
And now, decades later, George Bush was gonna revive a listless space program and send us back to the moon.
Of course he was …
Cynicism aside, the Moon Project was the only game in town … we never developed a replacement for the Orbiter, and now we’re hitching rides with the Russians. We needed something, and this was all we had to pin our hopes to. And now that is gone, too …
Aside from a well-deserved “WTF?” owing its origins to a latent sense of pride given the United States’ participation in the history in space exploration, the news does nothing to inspire optimism regarding our – humanity’s – effort to get off-planet. And I know the whole “mankind must never flag in its commitment to explore space” thing has been done to death, and better writers than I have written enough on the subject to fill several large volumes of books. But I gotta say something.
A story … of sorts …
1981 until graduation from college in ’83, through the unintended consequences of procrastination and an odd series of synchronicities, my take-home essay tests and term papers for my ancient Greek and Roman courses were almost always due on the day of a shuttle launch. (God’s Truth, if you believe in that sort of thing.) I must have caught every early launch, and at least 80 percent of the time I was awake because I always waited until the last minute and finished those papers and tests by pulling all-nighters the day they were due. All in all, an interesting/ironic juxtaposition … regurgitate what you learned studying the cradle of Western Civilization while watching the result of the long road those ancient peoples set us on.
My family had an active part in the space race. At least, my Dad did … he wired silos for missiles at Vandenberg AFB in the early sixties. We were a space town, Lompoc, California, a place at one time destined to become a Spaceport. Think about that a second. Cape Canaveral was always that – Cape Canaveral, the first U.S. Spaceport. The Russians had Baikonur. In terms of Space, they were it. Thing is, in the popular imagination, we never really considered Canaveral a spaceport. It was just a place we launched missiles from. And who thought about Baikonur outside of Russia, NASA and the CIA?
But Vandenberg AFB was something else – a declared spaceport. How audacious … a spaceport … we were on our way to the stars!
Sadly, funding was cut, the facilities at Vandenberg were mothballed … and that dream died. Being short-sighted appears to be a genetic trait in bureaucrats.
Still, Lompoc at the beginning of the 1960s was the West Coast’s ‘Space City’. The people residing there lived and breathed the space race. When missiles went up at night everyone would rush outside to the thundering roar of an Atlas or Minuteman as it started on its test run down the Pacific Range. The rockets would burn brilliant against the indigo skies, sometimes exploding, pulsing a ring of energy as the rocket blew up … or was detonated because of a system failure. And when the early Saturn 1 launches were televised, we’d have sleepovers and gangs of kids would stay up late to watch Mission Control light the candle and send the massive missile up.
Much later. 1977. Like a lot of people, the whole post-Moon landing space thing had faded in importance for me as I got on with my adult life. I was working at San Francisco General at the time. I’d gotten off my midnight shift at Mission Emergency Hospital and headed straight over to the Civic Center. I was going to attend a scifi convention, Space Con 3. My primary reason for being there: a talk to be held on the Shuttle Orbiter Program chaired by Nichele Nichols, James Doohan …
… and Robert A. Heinlein.
Bleary eyed as I was from sleep-deprivation, I was wide-awake throughout. The two Star Trek alums deferred to Heinlein, and he made an animated hour of it. Holding up a large cutaway drawing of the Shuttle, he proudly pronounced it to be “the Model T” of spaceflight development. He talked as he always talked about his hopes for mankind realizing what he saw as its destiny.
That seems so long ago now. Heinlein passed a decade later, his oft-stated dream of dying on the moon unfulfilled. The world, it seems, has changed. I grew up in a nation that dreamed of conquering space. We walked on the moon, saw our small ships of metal and electronics sail to nearly every corner of the solar system to send back news and knowledge of how things really were. And now we’re on the verge of retiring our only means of putting men in orbit.
We had dreams.
And then the dreams went away. With it, maybe our future … and our greatness
… we … have lost something …
There is a growing argument the United States is in a decline as a nation. There is a concurrent argument that humans as a species may possibly be on the way out. From a paleontological perspective, species disappearance is unsurprising – most species die off relatively quickly in terms of geologic time – but ending remains unsettling from the more immediate perspective of the species. Ominously, we should know with relative certainty in the next 30 years if the climate and environment tanks as bad as they are projected to … and then it will be too late to do much about either interrelated problem. The conversation regarding human survival is in relation to our need – and inability – to curb our population growth while seriously working to keep our natural resources self-sustainable. Just to say that is incredible to me; the planet’s bounty seemed limitless as recently as fifty years ago. No more. As we trash the biosphere scientists who study such things are calling this the sixth great die-off – and the first perpetrated by a species.
In both cases – the decline of the U.S. and the decline of global human civilization – it seems the common symptom is an intense, overriding focus on the here and now; the future seems too far away to care about.
All the gods lost 2-1,
And holes to heaven pointed out to us from light years away;
We’re surrounded by a billion galaxies…
– 2-1, Imogen Heap
So here we are. On the precipice of the future, roaming the shores of Sagan’s cosmic ocean, and we appear to be allowing our true chance at greatness slip through our collective fingers. Oh, sure, we landed on the Moon. We did great things. And then we didn’t.
We live at – quite possibly – the tail end of what might end up being the most perfect time in human history, a true era of wonders. The ancients would have regarded ours as a world of miracles, but modern viewpoints are jaded by lack of perspective: it’s hard to understand our condition, particularly in the developed world, is the exception to human history. There is still a lot of potential locked up in our species … but it is unclear if we can take advantage of that untapped potential given our increasingly apparent inability to get past the smallness in us. Moving off planet would give us a chance … give our children and their children and succeeding generations a real chance to survive the future we might be bringing on ourselves.
But we don’t see. We can’t see.
And this is what I see:
We’re the builders of the Pyramids. We’re the people who raised up the Parthenon and invented Western Civilization. We conquered Egypt, Persia, India and everything between. We invented, built (and then burnt) the Great Libraries of antiquity. We constructed the Coliseum, Circus Maximus … and ruled the Western World for centuries. We’re the sons and daughters of Discovery, architects of the Enlightenment. We opened the New World to the Old. The sun never set on our Empire. We’re the people that put men on the Moon.
And then we stopped … and we went away …