Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo 11 40th Anniversary

Today is the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history as the first men to take a stroll in that "magnificent desolation." The event occurred over 5 years before I was born, with the last trip to the moon occurring in 1972.

To me, it's always been something from the history books. I've seen the video countless times of Neil hopping down from the ladder and saying those famous words. Even so, it has never really seemed tangible to me because I didn't "see" it. I didn't stare at the black and white television for hours as did many of my older co-workers. I wasn't around to experience the social buzz or the public wonder. I wasn't thrilled by the glitches or aghast at their bravery. It was an extraordinary accomplishment, to be sure, and something I understand intellectually, but it really is no different to me than old television footage of World War II dog fights, or, worse, silent films. It was something that just ... happened ... when I wasn't around.

For most of my life, I have watched televised shuttle launches and more unmanned rocket launches than you can shake a stick at. For the last ten years, I have personally been involved in the robotic space program. Of this, I am supremely grateful and proud to have played my part. These things I have seen "live", and experienced the same gut-wrenching astonishment at the failures and the same exhilaration at the successes as the rest of the nation.

But it isn't the same. Today, this day, I mark with sadness. It's been 40 years since we first set foot on the moon. 37 years since we last went there. That's a long time. Longer than I've been alive. The space shuttle and the International Space Station are incredible feats, to be sure, but they have never been as awe-inspiring in the public mind as those brave Apollo years. For me, my greatest fear is that I may be lost in the historical middle. Too young to have experienced Apollo, and (at the rate we're going) I may not survive to see people land on Mars. This fills me with a profound sense of sadness.

The current "Constellation" program, which promises to return us to the moon and, theoretically, lay the foundation for manned missions to Mars, is a great thing, but it feels to me like a has-run. In every advertisement for it, the NASA public relations folks use the phrase "return to ...", which directly translates to the unfortunate concept of "re-run". The Constellation program seems to largely be an exercise in bean counting of the very worst kind. The managers and eggheads are trying to fit the whole thing within existing budgets, carefully measured and meted and scheduled. Transition plans for the manned space program are being delicately laid out, and all the while the public imagination flounders, far more interested in the latest Harry Potter movie than the space program (does anybody even know that the space shuttle is in orbit right now?!).

So I make this bold statement: While it would be extremely hard on me and my family, I would be willing to lose my job if our beloved president stood up and said we were going to dedicate the entire NASA budget to putting a man on Mars before 2020.

Today, I sat and listed to, where they were replaying the audio between the Apollo 11 astronauts and mission control (well worth the time, by the way). I was astonished as I sat and realized that the type of chatter they were having was exactly the same kind of chatter that I've personally done in support of a robotic mission. I realized that these people who accomplished Apollo were not great legends, somehow superhuman in ability and talent. They were just regular Joes who were given a job to do and did it to the best of their ability, which ended up being more than good enough. Given a task like that, I am absolutely confident that today's generation could perform feats equal to it and, indeed, surpassing it in greatness.

So, on this anniversary, I am left to wonder: where is my Apollo? Where is my audacious goal? I and others have more ideas and capabilities than we know what to do with, but our leaders have not unleashed the powers of my generation. Will they ever?

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