Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Is the Sky Our New Limit?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 17, 2009

I was at our pool club the other day when I heard a man of about 40 say those immortal words to an unruly child– “Back when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have dreamed of disobeying our parents!”. After my kids and his were out of earshot, I conspiratorially mentioned to him that back in my day I wouldn’t have dreamed of obeying my parents if I thought there was any chance of getting away with it, giving us both a chuckle at being the newest members of the I’ve Become My Father Club.

We often get lost and wallow in nostalgia when things aren’t quite the way we want them to be in the present; it’s probably our most commonly used emotional crutch and one we’ve all been indoctrinated in by the universal “back in my day…” musings of our forebears. Generally the facts don’t hold true to the sentiments– things weren’t really so peachy under Reagan or Kennedy or Roosevelt or Wilson when you get right down to it, no more or less so than they are in whatever present their names and eras were invoked.

There is at least one realm, however, where I can’t escape the belief that things were oh so much better in the early 60’s, and that is the sense of man’s unlimited potential. Watch this video and tell me if you can recapture that spirit right now if you lived through these events, or if you can even imagine it if , like me, you didn’t.

Billions of words have been spilt upon the 60’s, of course, and so I’ll limit mine to remarking how amazing the changes embodied in those 10 years were, from the unbridled hope and dreams of the early years to the tumult and despair of the ending years.

Space exploration seems the perfect metaphor for the dialing back of our dreams that happened during those years. The Kennedy proclamation that we were going to do the extremely difficult, that we were going to the moon within the decade, is the kind of proclamation that today would be immediately obliterated under the weight of words from the blogosphere, from the media and from the Congress. The discussion of going to Mars hasn’t captured the popular imagination– in fact, it isn’t something that most kids would even know was on the table.

The problem seems to be that we’ve become enamored of the incremental rather than the revolutionary. Kennedy proposed something that skipped so many steps as to be breathtaking– he didn’t get lost in the ephemera of cost benefit analysis or the reality of the many steps between the speech and the landing– he boldly declared an endgame and demanded a  process that would get us there rather than implementing a process that could someday find its way beyond our gravitational pull. In this instance Kennedy wasn’t a man invested in escaping the bonds of gravity, he was  a man who simply didn’t care to be bound.

Since July 20, 1969 we have been gripped by what we think of as reality but which might be more reasonably classified as a miasma of doubt. The day that Armstrong and Aldrin stepped upon the fine powder of a world beyond Terra was the day that an instantly fossilized footprint was laid in the lunar sand, not the day that our first bold steps towards the galaxy were laid. They were the high water mark of an era of hope which receded with the liftoff of the LEM back to the lunar orbiter, an era which, to be fair, had ended years before Apollo 11 ever lifted off. In the resounding roar of the engines of that Saturn V were the echoes of the post war ear of dreams, sounding across the Florida swamps and triggering not the vague stirrings of nostalgia for a distantly remembered past but the desperate grasp for one tantalizingly just out of reach, a ledge grabbed for an instant after the teeter became the fall.

The fall ended in a vat of goo that softened the landing but has clung to us and restrained our reach. The space program sank into the sludge that the rest of our country was submerged in as lunar landings became passe and the next great adventure, Skylab, never really became anything but a punchline. What started to pass for leaps forward weren’t manned strides out into the solar system but hobbled paces like the robotic probes and then the Space Shuttle. Each of those could have been important steps if they were indeed steps towards a goal, but in truth they weren’t. As dramatic as reaching out and landing on Mars for the first time could have been, Viking was an anti-climax– a robot that took a few pictures and died, fulfilling its limited design specs. Even the Space Shuttle was an anti-climax, literally a space truck that delivered satellite cargo into low orbit and landed to be refit for its next cargo delivery. At least it looked like a space ship, to an extent. It couldn’t go to the moon, it couldn’t take us to Mars, but at least it wasn’t just a conical tin can atop a rocket. It was something but, honestly, was never a huge reach. It led to the construction of a failed orbital station that has proven to be not even the modest next step it was supposed to be, a breakthrough-possible lab and perhaps construction station for extra-terran missions, but rather an expensive, orbiting Edsel that holds a very few people in orbit for a few months at a time.

To my mind the one bright spot, the one glimpse in my lifetime of the possibility of man as embodied by the reach into the sky beyond our own, was Hubble. Hubble allowed us not so much to dream as to wonder why we suddenly weren’t, a glimpse into the heavens and perhaps literally into Heaven, a Heaven of unsuspected and unimagined delicacy and grace where even the greatest celestial furnaces burning with a heat beyond the imagination of Dante were objects of breathtaking beauty. Hubble made us ask once more what was out there and reawakened in some of us a desire to find out, even if that quest led beyond our lifespan and into a dreamed future. It literally made the nebulous tangible.

Perhaps as important was the fact that we were able to service and improve Hubble over the years, demonstrating that space wasn’t outside of human reach but was in fact a place we could work, a realm in which we could do what we as humans fundamentally do– manipulate our environment. Four times we reached out to service and improve Hubble, recognizing the fundamental worth to mankind of dreams. Our waking eyes saw the costs and limits of space, but in the never-ending night of orbital space our dream continued to project its images into our lives.

That we had to debate the mission that extended the life of Hubble earlier this spring epitomizes the battle between those two existences, that of our budget conscious day and our limitless night. The bright lights of night won out, with caution and pessimism thrown to the wind and the mission, one of extraordinary difficulty and more than what some considered acceptable risk, executed perfectly. That the mission happened proves that the dreams live and that their value has won a column in the often seemingly heartless spreadsheet of our existence.

We have not overcome our incremental and limited existence, either in space or in our national life. The replacement for the Shuttle is a return to the conical tin can atop the rocket, a huge disappointment for most who love space and see a role for man in it, but one which may yet surprise and take us to a place where we touch the dream instead of merely glimpsing it on the fringes of consciousness. Private space travel seems to be becoming a reality, even if the suborbital flights of the Rutans of the world are a return to the days of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd. It must be recalled that we went from Kitty Hawk to space in a span of 58 years; who knows how little time it might take the visionaries of the private sector to catch and exceed the realities of NASA, the ESA, the Russians and the other governmental space players even starting from the notional point of the 1961 push into space.

I refuse to consider the sky our new limit. I can only hope that others will, too.

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2 Responses to “Is the Sky Our New Limit?”

  1. Yaro said

    I think, that in addition to Hubble, you can point to the two Mars rovers as far as our excitement and technical capability. I remember when they first landed how excited everyone once again was about space exploration. Unfortunately all those people were bored after a few weeks, likely asking “what else have you got?”. Those rovers, who were supposed to last only a few months, are still going, years after they landed.

  2. Bob Kohm said

    The rovers have far exceeded designs specs and have done good science, but have they cpatured the public’s imagination in any meaningful way?

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