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July 18th, 2019

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Apollo: One Giant Leap For Mankind

It was one of my earliest memories.

Six days earlier, I turned seven. It was one heck of a birthday present.

Human beings landing on the surface of another heavenly body. It's hard to remember, fifty years after, just how remarkable that was. In 1969 it had been only twelve years since anything made by humans was launched into orbit, let alone 300,000 miles further on to the Moon.Only eight years before (fourteen months before my birth), the first American was shot into space.

It was all new.

I remember it being taller.

Cars were being designed with rocketship-like fins on them. Star Trek and Lost in Space were on TV. (My very earliest memory is hiding behind my mother while she ironed clothes and watched a particularly scary scene from Star Trek.) My Christmas gifts? Action figures from the Matt Mason astronaut collection, and a complete Apollo rocket that, with a click, shot the Apollo capsule into the air.

We were space nuts because space was, perhaps literally, the future.

Or so we thought.

"I'm Matt Mason, and I"m bendy!"
 I remember one aunt claiming that the Moon landings never really happened. Yes, that was a thing even back then. The rest of us sat transfixed in front of our television sets, which themselves were the size of an Apollo capsule, and similarly colorless. We watched the launches, the landings, the splashdowns, even the retrieval as helicopters set the capsules down on the deck of a handy aircraft carrier.

One day our teacher brought a portable TV into the classroom--by portable, I mean it could be picked up by one person, assuming that one person had been working out. She adjusted the rabbit ears until a kinda-sorta picture came on, and we sat silently, watching one of the Apollo capsules splash down in the Pacific.

Thanks to Dee Williams, who gave me these as a reminder of the kitchen's piece of Apollo.


It was an early experiment in bringing technology into the classroom, and it sure worked for us ... although I wouldn't see a TV in class again until high school.

Oddly enough, I have no memory of the Apollo 13 crisis, and I wonder now if my parents didn't keep the news from me. Maybe they figured, correctly, that I had anxieties of my own without learning that my real life heroes were only human, after all. But otherwise, I was all about space.

Just to be clear, this is the real thing.
Can it really have been fifty years?

What the hell happened? We were supposed to be on Mars by now. Where's the Moonbase? Why isn't Southwest Airlines booking cheap flights to a space station? Where the heck are the ray guns, and the communicators?

Well, okay, never mind the communicator.

I was supposed to be up there, dammit. During winter I'd tie the hood of my coat tight around my face, and pretend I was in a spacesuit. Granted that space is warmer than Indiana winters of my youth, but still.

I'm what people call a fiscal conservative. I don't think any government should spend beyond their means, and I'm very much against throwing money around just because you can print more. Heaven knows manned space exploration is almost as expensive as a presidential election campaign.

But this is one area in which we should be spending more.

"That's one small step for half a billion ..."
The advantages of space exploration are enormous. Big enough to justify the expense, with all the other problems in the world? I would argue yes, but not just the missions themselves. It requires an investment in science, and that requires an investment in people: education, interest, employment. Discoveries that will lead to another wave of innovation and invention. Imagine the materials, knowledge, and technology that came out of the Apollo era, and imagine that continuing on, with a new generation.

A new generation. I think one of the problems with the world today is that we've lost our love of discovery just for the sake of discovery. Yes, exploration can bring us that new technology, those new jobs, maybe solutions to today's problems. But more important than that, it's time to make kids wonder again.

We need to be able to sit our kids in front of the TV again, and let them see real wonders, going on right before their eyes. Well, maybe not TV; maybe online, or on their phones, or visors, or their cyber-optic implants. Mankind has always thrilled in that exploration, that discovery. Reestablishing manned space exploration--preferably as a species, rather than as a country--might be just what it takes to get us moving forward as a people again.

Okay, so maybe it's too late for me to go up there. But I have grandchildren, now. And maybe, fifty years from now, people will be telling the story of when they landed ... somewhere.
 

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