Monday, July 20, 2009

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

It was forty years ago today: of course I'm referring to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, not when Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play (that was twenty years ago today). I'm having a busy summer, and what celebrating I was able to do for this historic anniversary took place last Thursday (July 16) which was the anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch. I spent the second of three Thursdays in July at the Boston Children's Museum, doing "live" demos to supplement their Living in Space exhibit. I say "live" because I was actually using the Orbiter space flight simulator and the great AMSO Apollo add-on package to perform simulated Saturn V launches and Eagle (LM) landings at Tranquility Base, while sharing my reminiscences of July 1969 with visiting kids and their parents. I had a number of other pre-planned simulation events (e.g., docking the shuttle with the ISS just like the real STS-127 mission now in progress), and with a billed schedule of such 15-20 minute "happenings," the second day was much busier and more fun than the first (for the kids and for me).

Only a few of the kids understood the significance of that historic week forty years ago. More of the parents got it, though most of them were too young to remember it themselves. And what was the significance of that week? If you read Tom Wolfe's NY Times essay on the Apollo 11 landing, you'll learn that it was "one giant leap to nowhere," and that this was because Apollo was actually a high-tech version of sword play between the Soviets and the Americans, and because while NASA had many scientists, engineers, and adminstrators, they had only one flawed (former Nazi, oops) "philosopher," Wernher von Braun - not enough fire power and "Words" to justify pushing on to Mars once the Soviets were beaten in the moon race. Bummer.

I know that NASA only got the budget that it got in the sixties because the space race was a proxy for the Cold War, and I know we've been "stuck in low Earth orbit" since 1972, but I'm still a bit of a romantic when it comes to interpreting Apollo 11, whatever its political genesis, and however delayed its ultimate effects may be. For the first time ever, humans left the Earth and landed on another body in the solar system. That was an insanely bold and cool thing to do, especially with the technology of the 1960's. It was way ahead of its time. But it showed that we could actually leave this planet when we want or need to, and go to other places.

Of course all the other places we will eventually visit and inhabit are much, much farther away than the moon, and the energy and technology required will be much greater. But when the time comes, we can do it, we can go to those places. Of course we should do our best to repair and maintain this planet - Earth is the Cradle of Mankind, and while one normally doesn't stay in the cradle forever, it has been a pretty spacious and human-friendly cradle, so most of us will stay as long as it remains habitable. But there's no guarantee that it will remain habitable forever - there are a lot of ways that we and/or "Nature" could mess that up, and I for one would like to have a long-term backup plan. Robots are great for science and exploration, as are humans, but I'm talking about places where humans can eventually live.

The Apollo program was an impressive proof of concept and down payment on those future developments, not to mention a tremendous inspiration to me and to many thousands of other engineers and scientists of my generation. Whatever Neil's exact words or intended words may have been when he hopped off that ladder, it was indeed one giant leap for mankind, and if there are still people around to remember things a couple of hundred years from now, I would bet that Apollo 11 will be one of the few events of the 20th century that will be considered worth remembering.

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