Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Geezers in Space

The 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing certainly did not pass without notice... but, let's admit, there was an air of... shall we say “quaintness” about it? A certain feeling of smiling wistfully, and head shaking, as if to say, "Wow, imagine that, way back then, it was actually considered a good idea to send men to the Moon, and an equally good idea to pay for it." And, I might add, we were in the throes of the war in Vietnam at the time... and any number of other discontents, like urban rioting, but we still managed it. Imagine such a thing happening in this day and age! But yes – it is being imagined, and the ones doing the imagining are none other than the guys who landed on the Moon in the first place, and their colleagues – you know, the guys that all had “the right stuff”, whatever the hell that meant.

So here is this Army of aging astronauts, emerging from their knotty-pine recreation rooms to plead with the government to please, please, keep America's space program fully funded and, therefore, America “in the lead” when it comes to space exploration... or travel... or whatever you want to call it, considering that we are still a far cry from Star Trek warp drive. The main problem is that, between 1969 and now, we've discovered – and even some liberals have discovered – that you can't have it all. If you want to pay public school teachers to put condoms on bananas, you're going to have to give up a few rounds in the centrifuge – that's all there is to it. Either that or raise taxes, and there is a limit even to that – it's called “the 100% tax bracket”-- like the kind they had in Sweden, until everyone with any brains left the country.

And this is not even taking into account the current economic crisis. Oh, I suppose some of the “economic stimulus” money could be diverted to NASA – is their stuff “shovel-ready”? (No – but I daresay some of their alumni are.)

And these guys do tip their hand once in a while. Walt Cunningham says there isn't the same desire for “dangerous adventure” as there was in former years. “We have allowed our society to turn into a risk-averse society.” Hasn't he been keeping up with “Jackass”? And as to risk-aversion – tell it to Wall Street. We're suffering the consequences of risk _mania_ right now – economically at least, if not in the strict physical sense.

And here's Buzz Aldrin (the inspiration, no doubt, for Buzz Lightyear in “Toy Story”): “ There may be life on Mars. If there is, it's for damn sure we'd better go there and look at it. ... We'll bring it there. Whether it's germs and leftover urine bags, or whatever it is.”

Um... this is kind of awkward. Who let him out of the Alzheimer's ward? This is most definitely not the sort of thing NASA needs to convince a bankrupt country to continue to support its “mission”. And the other astronauts, while more coherent, have been no less vocal about our “need” to continue exploring space. They have come out of retirement, and risen – as one man – to demand (not ask, but demand!) that America keep pushing the space envelope – although to what end, and for whose benefit, remains obscure at best, not unlike the case 40 years ago. And it's not that these guys are totally out to lunch when it comes to politics. Here's a quote from David Scott: “We have to find a reason to go to Mars that will continue the funding.” OK, very good – now let's think. We could come up with a finding that Mars is the actual headquarters of Al-Qaeda. Or – that some Israelis want to build settlements there... but I'm afraid the real reason will be the same tired old reason as always, namely that NASA is one gigantic, mother-grabbin' jobs program. See... we encourage young people, especially young men, to go to college and then to grad school, and get advanced degrees in “technology” -- and then when they get out we assign them a cab to drive around Boston. This can't be tolerated! So that is why NASA was created, basically – to provide a sheltered workshop for grossly over-educated (at least in the technological, if not classical, sense) people. So that explains all the geeky guys with the crew cuts and skinny ties you always saw manning “mission control”. In a totally free-market economy they would have been frustrated radio repairmen. The other side of the coin was the opportunity to recruit a bunch of maniacs, AKA “test pilots”, into the program before they left the service and “went postal” somewhere in the community. So NASA became a kind of odd-bedfellow organization consisting of, approximately, 99% geeks and 1% maniacs. But hey, they were inspiring – they were doing cool things, taking pretty pictures, and coming up with immortal quotes like “Wow, that is BEEW-tifull.” They were the last of the frontier, lone-riding, gunslinging, no-wimps-need-apply, testosterone-laden, American type. Their wives all had beehive hairdos, and they lived in houses with "picture windows" and brick barbecues. And – best of all, perhaps! -- NASA didn't even have to abide by “buy American” guidelines – they could have the best, and there was no limit on the amount of money available with which to buy it. And yeah, it was damned impressive... but come on, didn't you feel just a bit... “anticlimactic” the morning after the Moon landing? Wasn't there a still, small voice somewhere in your brain that kept muttering, “SO WHAT??” There sure was in my brain, especially when I observed that many inner cities were burning out of control at about the same time. And yeah, I know, “The poor will always be with you” -- as will their Molotov cocktails. Granted. But here we are, 40 years later, listening to a bunch of geezers who should have just stayed home in front of the TV. If I could get them together in a group – walkers, Depends, and all – I would say something like this:

“Dudes! You got to play in the biggest sandbox _ever_, for _years_, with the American taxpayer footing the bill. We could have bought a half-billion hot lunches for every public school kid in the country with that money. But you had fun. The guys at mission control had fun. It made for great television. But dudes, it's over, OK? This is not the same country it was back in '69. Yeah, we're technologically farther down the road, but we've just fallen into an economic volcano. Plus, that “Americanism” that provided so much of your support is dead – killed by collectivism, by war, by economic crises, by corrupt leadership, and by general social and moral decay. No one wants you, or anybody else, to go planting a flag on the Moon, or Mars, or anywhere else... 'cause what would it mean? What did all that high-profile technological achievement do for us, in the long run? Yeah, it gave us a few spin-offs. But did it do anything to prevent the economic crisis? Did it prevent lunatics from running the government, and getting us into unwinnable wars? Did it solve any of our domestic problems, like health care and race relations? Or education? No – it just made it all the more painful, and provided a bunch of boneheads with that all-purpose prefix to any argument, “If we can put a man on the Moon...” So yeah, what you did was awesome, but let's face it, it wasn't a steppingstone to even greater things; it was a high-water mark. It was something we may never – never! -- be able to get back to... and the people who might be able to pull it off, like the Chinese, probably couldn't care less. That “giant leap for mankind” had a string attached – it's call “gravity”, and sustainability, and economics, and national will... and, frankly, the only one of those factors still operating is gravity. So be good guys and go back home, and quit busting everyone's chops. You had your moment in the sun, and now it's time to say goodnight, and leave the worrying to someone else.”

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