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.

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