Monday, July 20, 2009

We can put a man on the moon but...

I remember the moon landing in 1969. A precocious 10-year-old, I was allowed to stay up late to see something my parents realized was truly special.

It was truly special too, and still is. Man’s leap into the void and successful touchdown on another celestial body is perhaps the most amazing achievement in human history.

It was one of the last things pretty much everybody in America agreed on. Except for some bean counters on the left who would rather have seen the money spent on human services programs and some tin-foil hat types on the right who thought the whole thing was faked in the desert somewhere, everybody in America, everybody in most of the world, came together in celebrating the accomplishment.

Certainly it ranks up there with Columbus crossing the Atlantic to the Americas, even if we haven’t followed up an on it as quickly.

That’s probably because of the expense. Any country could outfit a few ships and set out for the New World. Only the very richest countries could hope to even land a robot instruments package on another world, much less human explorers.

Still, it’s disappointing that NASA is only now considering returning humans to the moon. After all, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick had predicted humans would be orbiting Jupiter by 2001.

The moon launch also became something of a gauge of human and technological progress, usually in phrases that began “We can put a man on the moon but we still can’t (fill in the blank).”

Here’s a few thoughts along those lines to ponder on this 40th anniversary of he moon landing.

We put a man on the moon 40 years ago, but……

1. we still haven’t put one on Mars. – We could have done this by now if we’d wanted to. We’ve got the technology. What we don’t have is the will to make the sacrifice. Some people even question the value of putting humans on Mars, arguing that robots can do the scientific exploration more efficiently. Some people just have dead souls. Why should we put a man on Mars? Because we can. The history of human beings is a story of exploration, of striving for new unreachable goals, of conquering obstacles. We ought to go to Mars and to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter as soon as possible, because one day, thousands or million of years from now our descendants will need to get off this planet. By leaping into the void we’ve guaranteed the immortality of our species, but we’ll need to go farther than the moon.

2. we still can’t find an efficient replacement for the internal combustion engine. – Are we to believe that somehow the inventors of the automobile stumbled on the ultimate fuel and the ultimate mode of propulsion more than 100 years ago? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? It also seems that replacing our gasoline-driven engines would be a lot simpler engineering problem than putting a man on the moon. We solved that one in nine years. How long would it take a Manhattan Project or Apollo Project level research effort to find a better solution, be it electric, hydrogen fuel cells, solar or nuclear, than the internal combustion engine?

3. we still haven’t eradicated racism. – Race was much on the minds of Americans in the summer of 1969. We are little more than a year past the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. but already into the “benign neglect” regime of Richard M. Nixon, who exploited Southern anger over school integration to reach the White House. Forty years later, the first African-American president sits in the White House. And yet, last week former Nixon speechwriter and political pundit Pat Buchanan was on MSNBC demonstrating that unreconstructed racist are with us still as he explained that the vast majority of Supreme Court justices had been white men because “This has been a country built, basically, by white folks.” Probably the slaves who built the South’s agricultural wealth and the Chinese, who build the western half of the railroads, would disagree. Buchanan’s not the only offender. Since January, not a week has gone by without the news of some Republican local or state office holder or political operative embarrassed by the revelation that he’s been sending out e-mails containing racial jokes that would have been considered crude in 1969. In 2009, they help to explain how the GOP has fallen so rapidly out of step with a demographically changing nation.

4. we still haven’t normalized relations with Cuba. – In 1969 our trade embargo against Cuba was already 10 years old. It’s now 50 years old and talks have just begun on possibly ending it. This is truly puzzling. We were at war with North Vietnam in 1969. We normalized relations with them more than 20 years ago. The biggest threat to the United States was considered the Soviet Union. The USSR sank beneath its own contradictions more than 20 years ago. We always had normal relations with the USSR, exchanged ambassadors, and traded relatively freely, even at the height of the Cold War. The same has been true of Communist China since the Nixon administration. And yet for 50 years we’ve followed a policy on Cuba that has had no effect in changing its government and been of no benefit to Americans.

5. we still can’t get a decent meal on an airplane. – The astronauts who went to the moon probably had better cuisine than they serve on commercial airliners, even though it came in pouches. Hey, at least they had Tang. Airlines are still serving food, when they serve food at all, that makes TV dinners seem tasty. And now there’s a movement to get rid of the peanuts, because of the possibly threat to those who are allergic. If that happens, I’ll starve if I ever fly cross-country. The peanuts are the only things they serve that are edible.

6. we’re still listening to rock and roll. – Not a complaint, just an observation. In 1969 there were still those hoping this rock ‘n’ roll thing was just a phase and that crooners or big bands or jazz or classical or something would exceed that unruly music which you couldn’t understand the words to in popularity. Didn’t happen. There was the Disco Era. There was, and is, rap. Every few years country goes mainstream for a couple of years. But rock is still the king. The Rolling Stones can fill bigger arenas now than they could in 1969.

7. we can’t come up with a substitute for sugar that doesn’t taste like cough medicine. – From saccharine to aspartame to sucralose, every low-calorie sugar substitute has that awful after taste. The only substitute for sugar we’ve come up with that actually tastes good, high-fructose corn syrup, is worse for you than sugar. For those of us who need to lose weight this is very frustrating. I can eliminate the soda with the high-fructose corn syrup and drink water, but I need sugar for my coffee.

8. we still can’t get Americans to use mass transit. – If we ever do get off this planet, apparently everyone will need his or her own personal spaceship, because we don’t like to share a ride. Forty years ago, we were trying to get Americans to use the bus and the subway and the train more. We’re still trying. The only form of mass transit that has caught on here is the commercial airline. That’s probably only because private planes are expensive. Otherwise, like George Jetson, we’d all be wasting fuel by flying solo.

9. we’re still fighting each other over nationality and race and religion and for territory. – You’d think the view from the moon would have taught us something. It’s a pretty small planet and we’re all on it together. It’s the only one we’ve got. We’re citizens of a pretty small point in space. We’ve got more in common than we have separating us. Or maybe I’m just still a hippy. Probably when the aliens attack we’ll all pull together as one. Or we’ll all end up as slaves on the planet of big scaly lizard people. That’ll teach us.

10. we’re still here. – Again, not a complaint just an observation. In 1969 there were those on the left who thought we were about to lose the country to a police state with the rise of Nixon. There were those on the right who thought the country was about to descend into anarchy. Neither happened. The rule of law caught up to Nixon. The youthful yen for revolution matured into the pursuit of profit as the Baby Boom aged. We’ve just come through another period when the left worried about a police state, but we had a peaceful transition of power in January. There are now voices on the right worried about anarchy and socialism again – as there are whenever an administration not totally wedded to the interests of big business takes power. These worries will also prove to be unfounded. We’re still here, we’re still America, with all our virtues and warts intact. And that will likely be true when celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Mars landing as well.

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