Friday, July 17, 2009

Fly Me To The Moon (And Beyond)

I've always been somewhat of a space freak. Even though I was too young to remember the first lunar landing (the 40th anniversary of which is being celebrated this Monday the 20th), the Apollo Astronauts were heroes of mine. I remember the Apollo-Soyuz mission from 1975, when the U.S. and Soviet Cosmonauts first joined in space, vividly.

Over the years I've read several books and seen several documentaries about the space program. Most focus on the historic landing of Apollo 11 and the first walk on the moon, but for my money, the guys who really laid it on the line were the crew members of Apollo 8, the first group to actually head out to the moon, orbit, and come back to Earth. Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell literally had no idea if they could make it out to the moon, and less than 50% chance of making it back home. And of course, their Christmas Eve rendezvous with the moon, and the subsequent "Earthrise" picture taken by Anders (above) still produce awe.

But this weekend the focus is all about Apollo 11, as it should be. NASA has some interesting commemorations up on its site. By far the best website to track the mission is from the JFK Library in Boston called We Choose the Moon. Head over there and you can track, in real time (with all the conversations taking place between the astronauts and Houston) the mission as it unfolds.

In yesterday's WaPo, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin had a great op-ed calling for a return to human space flight beyond Earth's orbit. As Charles Krauthammer points out today, it's astonishing we routinely sent men to the moon and then, just as quickly, stopped. It's almost been 40 years since we have ventured outside Earth's orbit. And with all the talk of returning to the moon sometime soon, I prefer Aldrin's advice: forget the moon, let's go to Mars.

A race to the moon is a dead end. While the lunar surface can be used to develop advanced technologies, it is a poor location for homesteading. The moon is a lifeless, barren world, its stark desolation matched by its hostility to all living things. And replaying the glory days of Apollo will not advance the cause of American space leadership or inspire the support and enthusiasm of the public and the next generation of space explorers.

Let the lunar surface be the ultimate global commons while we focus on more distant and sustainable goals to revitalize our space program. Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America's future. I am not suggesting a few visits to plant flags and do photo ops but a journey to make the first homestead in space: an American colony on a new world.
As Krauthammer notes, this seems a "waste of money" in good economic times, even more so during a recession such as the current one. However, he writes (and I agree) we should return anyway.

So what, you say? Don't we have problems here on Earth? Oh, please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we'd waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we'd still be living in caves.

Yes, we have a financial crisis. No one's asking for a crash Manhattan Project. All we need is sufficient funding from the hundreds of billions being showered from Washington -- "stimulus" monies that, unlike Eisenhower's interstate highway system or Kennedy's Apollo program, will leave behind not a trace on our country or our consciousness -- to build Constellation and get us back to Earth orbit and the moon a half-century after the original landing.

I don't agree that we should go back to the moon, necessarily, and as a sociologist I don't like the dismissal of very real social problems today. We need to take care of the myriad problems here (which is why I put the Earthrise picture in this post intead of the Moon).

But I could never call space exploration a "waste." In fact, it's the very challenge of something bigger than us which seems to be lacking in the culture today. Wouldn't you rather follow on Twitter a group of astronauts as they head out to Mars for the first time, rather than what some d-bag celebrity had for breakfast?

To not push ourselves beyond the next rent payment, the next celebrity gossip story, the next trip to the grocery store, is to stagnate as a people and a culture. We accomplished the unthinkable 40 years ago...can't it happen again?

This weekend we should celebrate what we achieved and then recommit ourselves to something just as bold for the next 20 years.

UPDATE: I was going to put Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon" video up as an addendum to the post, until I saw this Dinah Washington video, a trailer from the 1998 flick "From the Earth to the Moon," over at TNN (h/t Frank Gannon).

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