Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Showtime at the Apollo

I recently got a great book. A monograph by Robert Seamans, the Assistant Adminstrator of NASA during the 1960s, titled Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions. It's mostly concerned with the administration of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Policy memos are quoted, with some discussion of technical decisions and program direction. The actual missions merit the occasional paragraph, with Apollo 11 getting a somewhat lengthier passage. It sounds pretty dry, I know. But I tore through it, and ended up cross-referencing it with my 3-volume illustrated A Man on the Moon by Chaikin. Just about every aspect of the moon landings fascinates me.

Part of the fascination, of course, is because I'm an engineer and Apollo still towers above almost every other engineering feat in history. But really, almost everything about Apollo was the most or best - the farthest, the fastest, the ultimate exploration to date. The level of personal bravery of the astronauts, the technical excellence of the engineers, the sheer size of the program - it's staggering. I firmly believe that the United States will be remembered for the rest of history for three things: the invention of popular representative democracy, the atomic bomb, and the moon landings. Pretty amazing.

However, the story of space race has always been bittersweet for me, because it ends. I've often spoken with my parents, who grew up during those years, and they communicate so clearly how the presumption was we would keep going. It's been almost 40 years since we landed on the moon - and we're essentially no closer to meeting the great vision of becoming a true spacefaring nation. In fact, now that the plan is to go back to the moon, it will take us more than a decade to repeat the achievement. There's a real possibility that none of the 12 men who have walked on the moon will still be alive by the time there is a 13th.

At least the work has begun to get going again. Many engineers on the program to return to the moon, Project Constellation, call it "Apollo 2.0" because the of the great deal of technological overlap. I don't much care how they do it - they can cannablize old Redstone rockets from the Mercury days for all I care. So much else will eventually crumble into dust, swept away by history. In a generation or two, I think even the great effort of WWII will begin to fade to the rank of the Napoleonic Wars or (eventually) the 100 Years War. But a permanent presence on the Moon, or colonizing Mars... that's up in the high country, akin to Magellan's circumnavigation or Gutenberg inventing the printing press.

It takes a lot of patience, and treasure, to pull this off. The returns can be minimal - not every space program spits out velcro or teflon. But it is an effort worthy of a great nation. So support your local astronaut.

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