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In Memory of Manned Space Flight July 10, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Count me among the Americans who are bitterly disappointed that the United States has chosen to withdraw from manned space flight.  I was a child of the Space Age, sitting in front of my black and white TV as Neil Armstrong intoned those simple but immortal words:  “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It seems we can’t afford a manned space program any more.  I doubt that’s true, but it seems a convenient enough excuse for those who don’t appreciate the benefits, both practical and abstract, and are unwilling to provide the leadership and participation necessary to continue.

I’m not a political person, and don’t take the usual path of blaming whichever political party is the more convenient scapegoat.  In any case, I doubt that either major party has a monopoly on interest in exploration.

So what is it?  I have several possible suggestions.  I doubt that any one is completely correct, although all may be partially so.

–          We have long lacked the leadership to articulate the need to continue exploration of our physical boundaries.  There was a time when leaders had the ability to express a vision, and keep on that message to make it compelling enough to the citizens.  Perhaps it’s the quality of leaders we have had recently, or perhaps it’s the many competing messages that we see daily on the Internet.

–          We have no money.  While ongoing budget and revenue issues make daily headlines, it’s difficult to imagine that we’ve gone from a forward-looking society to an inward-looking one because of a tiny part of our budget.

–          Our obsession with protecting and redistributing what we’ve got, rather than growing our intellectual and physical resources.

–          The continued lack of science and engineering training in the workforce, and the loss of a layman’s understanding of science and engineering matters in society.  Perhaps computing has contributed to this loss; it’s much easier to conceptualize and romanticize a rocket launch than it is a data transfer.

–          A poisonous political environment.  Enough said, although I suspect that it’s not really any worse than it has been at many other times in the country’s history.

–          The aging and growing irrelevance of our space heroes from the golden age of space exploration.  Of the two most prominent living heroes, John Glenn has largely retired from public life, and Neil Armstrong has always declined to become a public figure.  I rather guiltily hoped that the association of Mark Kelly with Gabrielle Giffords would thrust him into that role, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Whatever it might be, I see the demise of the manned space program as a symptom of a larger problem.  The need to reach beyond where you are today is a characteristic of societies that seek to grow and become better than what they currently are.  Certainly there has been a profit motive in the past, at least for some, but the effect has been to broaden our intellect and perspective.  We no longer seem to see that as a requirement for a healthy society.

I tend to be an optimistic person.  But our benign acceptance of the demise of the manned space program makes me despair for the future of the country and its people.

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