Monday, April 30, 2012

Restoring Enthusiasm For America’s Space Program

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Whatever happened to “Yes, we can!”?

I’m not referring to a campaign slogan. I’m referring to the once indomitable spirit of Americans’ belief that they could triumph over adversity.

As I rapidly approach my dotage I retain the advantage of looking back to a time that was far more apocalyptic than today.

I grew up at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was palpable. Duck and cover drills were common. The Cuban missile crisis poised us on the brink of Armageddon.

The Soviets repeatedly embarrassed us on the forefront of “seizing the high ground”. They launched the first satellite, Sputnik

They launched the first man to orbit the Earth, Yuri Gargarin.

The first man to walk in space was Alexey Leonov.

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space.

A young President, abhorred by the right, posed a challenge to America to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

This challenge spurred an eruption of interest in science, mathematics and engineering. It gave birth to new businesses and new technologies that we are still reaping the benefits of today.

It created a cultural dynamic of hope in the future crystallized in the iconic TV series Star Trek.

What happened to “Yes we can!”?

Today the focus is on our 401K’s, social security and if you are American or religious enough. Any call for collective action and a shared vision is denounced as socialism. We seem to look for any opportunity to throw away the lives of young Americans to go kill the villain du jour.

Even as detached and fact-based an analyst as Stephen Hawking has argued that mankind must look to “the final frontier” as the last best hope of mankind.

In the course of our narcissistic preoccupation with our own financial difficulties one voice has begun to emerge as an advocate for a rededication to the goal of space exploration. He has assumed the mantle once held by the late Carl Sagan as a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for scientific progress. But he is even more aggressive in addressing the policy aspects that must be tackled by government.

He is Neil deGrassé Tyson. He has become a pop-culture figure appearing everywhere from PBS to the Daily Show.

Last week, Tyson delivered the keynote address at the 28th National Space Symposium. It's over an hour long if you include his 15-minute intro and the Q&A session towards the end, but it's definitely worth the watch — especially if you're already familiar with Tyson's tendency to link America's space-faring ambitions to its economic, scientific and technological ones.

Earth Rise - Apollo 8

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ken. I couldn't agree more. This country has a lost sense of purpose. The Apollo missions gave that to us in the '60's and '70's but once space flight appeared to become routine, the drama leaked out of it and the greater public lost interest. There were more immediate problems to deal with and there was no leader with a vision that could rationalize continued spending on manned space flight. I am coming to terms with the fact that my sons will probably see Chinese astronauts on the moon before they see American astronauts there. What a shame.

    Having said that, I fault the educational system for not making children and the public more aware of the revolution in space science that has occurred in my lifetime. NASA has launched a series of what they call "great observatories" but only Hubble gets it's name in the papers. Our understanding of the sun, planets, galaxy and the universe has increased dramatically because of these missions and the technological advances that drove them but most people are unaware of this. Universities should have done a better job of partnering with local schools to make this information available and share the excitement that runs through the scientific community.

    I'm encouraged by the commercial space ventures that are popping up. Space exploration will only truly take off when private industry finds a way to make a profit and thus turn the effort into a self sustaining enterprise. While the Chinese may make it to the moon before we do, the future belongs to these private companies and I believe only the US is creating the infrastructure to make this possible.

    Take heart old man. We're in the duldrums now and there are clouds on the horizon but I believe the tide is in our favor. I just hope I live long enough to witness the change!

    - from one old man to another


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