Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Inspiration

What is inspiration? What is inspiring?

The recent decision to scrap NASA's mission to return to the Moon has many people wondering what happened to that great sense of inspired destiny that seemed to guide the original Moon mission.

Where, they wonder, is the inspiration that NASA brought to that generation? What they wonder, is left to inspire us if our quest to explore space is abandoned?

First of all, I have to say that 'abandoning' the Mission to the Moon Redux makes good sense. Really it does. For one thing, sensible aerospace engineers know--and have long known--that no matter what the political will might be at any given moment, human space exploration will not even advance to and certainly not go beyond the Moon for very long--as in many decades--time.

There are a number of reasons for this reality, not the least of which is the fact that we do not have any real need--scientific or political--to go back.

Scientifically, we need look no further than the well-known but never-remembered Van Allen Belts, which so effectively protect us from deadly cosmic radiation here on Earth that we conveniently forget that they are there. However, humans cannot survive more than a few weeks outside their range, which is just a few thousand miles above the surface.

So, all other things being equal (which they are not) it's really not the getting back to the Moon that poses the real problem for today's technology, but the staying there that would be deadly.

This means that while our currently most visible presence in space, the International Space Station (ISS), is a relatively safe (ad)venture, ambitions that take humans out of low earth orbit for any length of time are, for the moment, actually the stuff of science fiction.

Travel to other planets is even more unlikely. For example, humans traveling to Mars would receive lethal doses of radiation (accumulated in weeks) on the trip over (which takes years).

In any event, American astronauts are not likely to go much further than the ISS in our lifetimes.

What about the political inspiration that a Moon mission might create? Isn't that what the first mission was really all about? Perhaps it was, but historically speaking, this is one of those cases where you want to be careful about what you wish for.

It's been said that going to the Moon was the biggest political setback for science in the twentieth century. At first, I thought this was a merely inflammatory statement meant to rile up those of us that grew up during the Space Race and those who still have faith in the power of technology to change our lives.

However, the more I think about it, the less it sounds like heresy and the more it sounds like truth.

Why? Well, even though going to the Moon was touted as a great and unprecedented scientific achievement, we all know it was in fact more of a political and engineering achievement. And yet, the real irony is that even when measured in those terms, it falls considerably short of success.

In fact, by almost any definition the Moon mission was actually a failure.

Oh sure, we got some things, like Velcro and Tang, but what did going to the Moon and back really do for us? By do I mean what changes have we seen in our society and the culture that defines us? And by us I mean all humans, not just Americans.

The answer, I am afraid, is not so much. But was it a failure in inspiration or merely in execution? In other words, should we try again?

Other than all the new things cluttering the global marketplace, are there any new ideas or directions for us, our children, or our species that grew out of the Moon mission?

Who, exactly, did the Moon mission inspire?

Did it inspire scientists, artists and politicians? Yes, perhaps, briefly. Did it inspire "the public"? Did it move the Wheel of History? Yes, in many ways. Did it really change our lives? Here I am not so sure.

I can only speak for myself. As an twelve year-old boy sitting front of a tiny black-and-white television set in July of 1969, I was inspired. Or at least that's what I'd like to think. Yet, even as I write this, I am still unsure.

The reason I'm unsure is because even now I wonder what, if anything, did sitting in front of the television, looking at those amazing but almost indecipherable images actually inspire me to do? And if they weren't the spark that lit my fire, so to speak, what was? What has inspired me?

Words.

Although I consider myself to be a poorly read dilettante at best, especially in comparison with say, Lynda, her friend Len Radoff, or my brother Stephen, as I look back, it is apparent that words have been the principal source of inspiration in my life outside of my family.

It is more than fair to say that authors like L'Engle, Clarke, Bradbury, Silverberg, Heinlein St. Exupery and Vonnegut have changed my life. I'm not just talking about science fiction and romance either. Obviously there are too many other authors who have inspired me to list here and I haven't even touched on the Poets.

So, I still read about space and technology every day, following all the details like I was still eleven years old. I still hope to get to Florida this year for one of the remaining four Shuttle launches. And, if Richard Branson ever gets his act together (and I find a spare 200K) I may yet have the opportunity to go into 'space'.

More likely, though, I will be able to get by on the inspiration that has served me and so many millions of my fellow humans for so many generations: the word.

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