Wednesday, September 3, 2008

To Infinity and Beyond

I get the NYT every morning in my Hotmail inbox. Along with the headlines and news of the Yankees losing more and more ground each day to the Sox and D-Rays (don’t care if they dropped the “D” I’m still gonna to use it), at the bottom of each page is a little “this day in history” thing.

You never know what’s going to pop up there, but there’s always a link to the big story and a link so you can see what the front page looked like that day.

An aside: Looking at these stories kinda reminds me of an assignment a professor once gave: In the NYT (or similar paper) go back to the day you were born and your 10th birthday, the days preceding and the days after and look at the news. Also, take someone important in your life (in my case, my dad) and do the same thing.

Looking through these 12 papers I was interested to find a common link: in each three-day period I was able to find something related to the Irish struggle for freedom from Great Britain. In one case it was an announcement of a speech by √Čamon de Valera, Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland and in the others stories about the fighting in Ulster. End of aside.

Today’s little “this day in history” takes us back to 1976, the year of the Bicentennial (anyone remember how the Bicentennial was described in Dazed and Confused?). On Sept. 3, 1976
Viking 2 landed on Mars at Utopia Planitia and sent back its first pictures. (Viking 1 landed June 19, in case you’re interested.) By the way, anyone know what was built at Utopia Planitia?

We look at this today and many say, “Big whoop. We’ve got rovers and probes all over Mars now.” True, but shouldn’t the more important question be this: Why do we only have rovers and probes on Mars when we were able to land a probe there 32 years ago?

We, America, that is, put a man in space on May 5, 1961 and into orbit a little more than 10 months later.

We, America again, sent men to the Moon in December 1968, and landed two of them there less than seven months later on July 20, 1969.

We, yep, America once more, landed Viking 1 on Mars July 20, 1976. The Ruskies beat us on this one, but their lander, Mars 2, crashed into the planet on Nov. 27, 1971 instead of actually, you know, landing. Viking 1 sent data home for more than six years after it gently kissed the surface of Mars.

So, let’s recap:
  • 1962, Earth to orbit: 143 nautical miles. (eight minutes)
  • 1969, Earth to the moon: 238,856.95 miles (three days)
  • 1976, Earth to Mars: 36 million miles at its closest point (10 months)
So, (and if you’ve hung in this long, thank you) if it took us seven years to get from orbiting a man to sending one to the Moon 39 years ago, how is it that we don’t expect to land another man on the Moon until 2018-2020? Why will it take at least 14 years from President Bush’s January 2004 announcement that we (America) plan to go back to the Moon to actually getting there?

Seriously? Fourteen years? Minimum?

There are two things that will keep this country moving in the right direction as a world leader: energy independence and a vigorous manned spaceflight program. Both will spur innovation, something Americans are pretty good at anyway and, more importantly, inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers who will keep on inventing the things we don’t even know we need.


If you’ve ever seen the movie October Sky and the story of Homer Hickam Jr., you know what I mean. Although he grew up in a coal town in West Virginia, the first time Hickam, then 14, saw Sputnik fly overhead in 1957 he decided he wanted to be a rocket engineer. He eventually worked on the Space Shuttle program.

Like John Hirasaki, a man I once interviewed.
Hirasaki, the grandson of Japanese immigrants to Southeast Texas, was the fourth person on Earth to smell the moon.

Hirasaki was the recovery engineer who volunteered to man the Mobile Quarantine Facility, a sealed Airstream trailer where the crew of Apollo 11 was placed as soon as they returned from the Moon. Apparently, NASA was concerned they might bring back something other than rocks.

"One of the interesting things I noticed was that there was a unique scent I hadn't noticed on other Apollo capsules," Hirasaki said about opening up Columbia, Apollo 11's command module (in an article written by moi in July 2004). "I attributed it to the dust they picked up on the moon. It smelled like after you strike two pieces of flint together, or like a firecracker."

It was the kids inspired by the work of Hickam and Hirasaki and thousands more like them who went on to create the technology that is a part of our everyday lives. That cell phone you want to upgrade and so thoughtlessly toss in your purse or slide in your pocket? It has more power than the ship that took the first Americans out of our world to land on another.

Some people think any dollar spent by NASA is a dollar wasted, and everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

I’d like to think the money we spend today going to the Moon and Mars and beyond will come back to us ten- or even a hundred-fold in ways we can’t possibly imagine now, but won’t be able to imagine living without in the years to come.


jess said...

hey. i am a friend of arjewtino's and found your blog via him. i work in journalism in science, and i wanted to say the main reason (which you may know) it's taking so long for us to get to the moon is that the space shuttles aren't designed to land and take off there. we need entirely new vehicles, designed to carry people and different supplies/stuff (lunar rovers and such) to go back there. the point is to have a moon base, with all the logistics that involves in terms of training, planning, and engineering.

in an incredibly short 8 years, we went from jfk's moon speech to being there. but budgets were simpler. not as many people now support nasa and want its budget cut.

but i'm with you. i want more exploration. you might like this TED video on the topic:

FoggyDew said...

Hi Jess, thanks for checking in.

All good points. In fact, my very first research paper (in 7th grade) was on the space shuttle which was, at the time and still is, an amazing machine. Despite the limitations you've pointed out.

What I was trying to say, in my own very round about way, is that we as a country need to support the space program and recognize it as an incubator for our country's future. You're right that it all comes down to funding and our government needs to do more to make this happen faster.

Constellation, Orion, Aries and the rest of the next gen of spacecraft will be amazing machines and, with a little more support, we could do it faster and better.