Saturday, April 24, 2010

More thoughts on NASA

I've been harping about the demise of the shuttle program and NASA's lack of direction lately. I really think we are missing a grand opportunity--not just to explore space, but the opportunity to enrich our lives here on Earth.

Many of our advances in microchips, lighter metal alloys, fuel cells, and other technological, medical, and scientific achievements have come about from the space program. By and large those breakthroughs have seeped into our daily lives and are now commonplace in devices we use and take for granted.

But the space program also gives us a chance to imagine and wonder. It gives us something to reach for. It gives us real heroes worth emulating, unlike shallow "reality" stars who want more than fifteen minutes of fame or pro-athletes who run afoul of the law and their marriages.

Aaron Robinson, a columnist for Car & Driver recently wrote a column on this very subject. And he puts things more succinctly than I can. You can read Aaron Robinson's column by clicking here.

I agree with what Robinson writes. We need imagination. We need to work hard and achieve great things, not focus on material wealth and instant gratification. We need to inspire our kids to be come scientists and engineers. We also need something that lifts our collective spirits, which is why we love movies like "The Blind Side" or get teary eyed when communities come together to help trapped miners or send aid to places like Haiti.

As Americans, and as people on Earth, we need reminding that we are a part of something bigger. During the financial crisis last year, governments threw money around, bailing out just about any institution that qualified as some sort of bank. It is time now to bail out our imaginations and the human spirit. Returning to the Moon, or a similarly ambitious journey, is the first step.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Alan Shepherd's Corvette

If you were a boy growing up in the 1960s you may have idolized NFL quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas or Joe Namath, or baseball players like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. But the true superstars of that era, and the heroes everyone admired, were astronauts.

Much has been said about the 1960s. Vietnam. Hippies. Woodstock. But to my eyes, one of the most remarkable achievements of human kind was landing a man on the moon. As Neil Armstrong said, it "was one small step for man, one giant step for mankind."

You'd have to go back to 1492 to find a similar achievement, when Columbus discovered the New World.

In that day, astronauts were larger than life but they were also true American heroes. They were looking up to. And they all drove Corvettes, which were also larger than life. I was reminded of that, when I saw Alan Shepherd's Corvette in the Apollo Exhibit at Kennedy Space Center. The simple fact is, I cannot look at a mid 1960s Stingray, or a 1968 model like Alan Shepherd's without thinking of the Apollo Program and the moon landings.

The Corvette lost its way for a time, but is back better than ever. Recently Jeremy Clarkson, who hosts "Top Gear" rated it as one of his favorite cars. High praise for someone who regards Americans as fat, stupid sheep.

NASA and the space program has also lost its way recently, with the end of the shuttle program and the demise of Project Orion. I can only hope they too return better than ever someday. And again, larger than life.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Shuttle Launch

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to watch the Space Shuttle Discovery takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center, with my son and father-in-law. It was a special treat. Words cannot describe the thunder of the rockets, a sound that can be heard from as far away as Orlando. From just a few miles, it was like being pushed back by a wall of sound. Amazing.

Discovery lifted off at6:21 AM and created an artificial sunrise. Unfortunately this is one of the last times we'll see this sight and hear the tremendous sound, because come October, the shuttle program will be history.

As a fifth grader, I watched the first shuttle, Columbia, launch and return to earth. Back then it was a nationwide event. Twenty nine years have passed since that time and the launches have become routine. People regard the shuttle as little more than a truck service into outer space.

It's unfortunate the program is ending with nothing to replace it. There was a similar lull after the Apollo program ended in the 1970s. Like that lull, I hope this one is temporary and more exciting things are yet to come.