Wednesday, October 3, 2007

October 3, 2007

Sputnik--that little Soviet moon that went beep-beep--soared into orbit fifty years ago this week beginning a space race and a space age which haven't turned out quite the way we thought they would.

The race started off as you'd have expected--great thumping of chests and gnashing of teeth in America because, gee whiz, aren't we the ones who are good at this stuff? Well, no. Their rocket worked. Ours, the Vanguard, soared four feet into the air and then blew up. We didn't catch up right away either. Their Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. The United States did catch up in time, of course. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, not two cosmonauts, were first on the moon. Alan Shepherd, in Apollo 14, was the first to play golf there--couple of shots with a 6-iron back in 1971. But then the race seemed to end. Apollo 17 was the last moon mission; NASA had planned a few more but scrapped them. Did anyone care? Was the moon race a Cold War race that ended?

We, and they, and other countries, launched a lot of satellites. But with a few exceptions like the Hubble telescope, they looked not out at the planets but back here at the earth. You remember the famous split infinitive on the old "Star Trek" shows? "To boldly go where no man has gone..." That's not what happened. Instead, we used satellites to change life on earth. We bounce TV shows off them. We make telephone calls using them. We survey the earth and the oceans with them. If that box in your car tells you to make a left turn as you're driving to Grandma's house, that's satellite stuff, too. Countries' armed forces use satellites to spy on other countries' armed forces. But it's earth stuff, not space stuff.

Will we go out again? This president has talked about going back to the moon and on to Mars. But talk is cheap. Space travel is very expensive and NASA is not spending money on new hardware for such voyages just now. And the Soviet Union has, of course, imploded. The U.S and Russia still man the international space station, but it isn't finished.

Will we go out again? The last few decades have taught us that we don't always win the wars--Vietnam, Iraq--and that we don't seem able to give all our children a decent education, don't seem able to end hunger in our land. Will we go once more a-roving?
I used to think so. Now I'm not so sure.

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