Monday, July 20, 2009

Three Years At The Horizon

“Wake up. You need to watch this. History is happening.”

Memories from early childhood are at best, subjective and distort with age more than most memories. Language plays a large role in providing context to our surroundings and to how we remember events. Emotional significance also plays a role in the permanence of memories. We are more likely to remember an event in detail for many years because it originally caused us great joy, anger, sorrow or pain, compared to say, last week’s grocery list.

To this day, I distinctly remember one night, when I was three years old, being awakened by my parents who spoke the quoted words above. The date was July 20, 1969. It was around 10:30 pm.

While the previous few days had been filled with interrupting news bulletins of the Apollo 11 launch and subsequent journey to the Moon, their significance (and detailed memories) would not imprint as much upon me. When I was awakened late that night to find that it was suddenly very important to my parents that I watch television, I, like any three-year old of the day, found that odd to say the least. The emotional significance of the event (and therefore its memory) was set.

In 1969 we had a modest-sized black and white television in the living room. Looking at the live ghostly lunar images that I’ve since seen countless times over the decades, I asked my parents (as best as a three-year old could) why this was important. They told me that mankind was about to do something that had never been done before, and it was going to be part of my future. Over the course of that night, and the months that followed as later lunar missions departed and returned with regularity, one thing became abundantly clear to me:

I had been born into a space-faring society.

This was not an epiphany, but an observation of everyday fact. We were going to moon several times a year. We were digging rocks, driving cool buggies, and even hitting golf balls off-world.

Back on Earth, the everyday pop-culture reflected our lunar occupation. Kids (including myself) were hoisted on the shoulders of adults to wave at the astronauts each time they were on the Moon. Toys, lunch boxes, advertisements, clothes, furniture, cars and just about anything you could think of had been touched by a NASA or space brand of one kind or another. It was just another, everyday and common fact of life. The motivations of the red scare and technology race with the Soviets were not part of the message making it through to me and my fellow toddlers. Certainly there was no discussion of the economics of space travel (though in retrospect, the return on investment has far eclipsed the original monies spent). All that society wanted me to know then was that space was about solving hard problems that benefited everyone.

Space was not only wicked cool, it was our future.

In the early 1970’s space and the future were inseparable. We’d have orbiting space colonies by the ‘80s. By 2000, we’d have cities on the Moon, and the exploration if not colonization of Mars would already be well underway.

That was the future I was going to inherit, and I had better be ready for it. It was what would shape my education choices, my careers, and my passions. Unfortunately, it would only be a few short years when forces much stronger than gravity would keep humanity Earth-locked to this very day.

For those of us who grew up inspired by Apollo, my generation soon became the legion of the disillusioned. In adulthood we came to recognize the political motivations and the economies of past and present space programs. We also saw the needless tragedies that befell the crews of Challenger and Columbia for the sake of appeasement, cost cutting and substandard process controls.

Modern planetary expeditions would use space robotics which were cheaper, safer, and easier to manage, especially for missions that would extend for decades. However, they left limited room for the imagination, and even less for the exploration of self.

At its core, the triumph of the Apollo era was not its technological achievements, but the triumph of the human spirit. We made (and stuck to) bold decisions to solve incredible problems on the belief that a better future lay somewhere, and sometime beyond the horizon. We weren’t traveling as tourists with complex cameras. We were explorers taking small steps in what was to have been a sequence of many – no different than the trailblazing into the unknown of Leif Ericson, Marco Polo, or Lewis & Clark.

We have long since abandoned the pioneer mentality, much to the detriment of our society. Today we celebrate ignorance and entertainment over knowledge and enlightenment. We spend our time reliving past glories to make ourselves feel good, while yielding the sovereignty of the horizon to leaders who would convince us that the horizon is not ours to pursue. We do not inspire future generations. Instead, we borrow from them, out of our own self-serving sense of entitlement.

If ever we as a society are to advance in any significant way (even as simply as leaving Earth’s orbit again for exploration of other planets) we must learn one important lesson from the 1960’s.

When planning a giant leap, one cannot afford small minds.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Revolutionary Ideas

Every year on the 4th of July, I am treated, weather and tree-line permitting, to a spectacular night view of fireworks from at least seven towns around Sebago Lake. Tonight, I am surprised by how many fireworks shows I'm seeing, and how many boats are visible on the lake. I would have expected that in these recessionary times, cities and towns would be cutting back, as many have across the nation. Instead, I'm seeing an almost rebellious spirit from the all parts of the lake, as town after town is lit up with bright displays, the likes of which I haven't seen in years. I'm also seeing more boats on the lake than I would have expected. It's as if every town and person decided to treat themselves in spirit, despite the difficult times. Somehow, the idea of celebrating this night became a focus for many people, who tackled it in their own way, and produced an evening larger than themselves.

I can appreciate the power of an idea. It's what I do.

As I see each new flash of color and light from Naples and Casco all the way down to Standish and I think even Portland, I think about the ideas that were stirring in the minds of people like you and me, 233 years ago (and from the 18th century in general). Consider, not just on this night, the thoughts of...

Thomas Jefferson:

"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."
"A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government."
"A coward is much more exposed to quarrels than a man of spirit."
"An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes."
"Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing."
"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them."

George Washington:

"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."
"Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism."
"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
"Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all."
"Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: for your pocket-book not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved."
"The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments."

Benjamin Franklin:

"Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn."
"Creditors have better memories than debtors."
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."
"The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."
"Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning."
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

What are your ideas?