Friday, February 5, 2010

The Way of the Pyramids


This week, I've shared what I think are fascinating historical artifacts... hope I haven't bored anyone with the museum mindset. To me, origins are always of nearly-equal interest as our modern projects. But... will I have anything comparable to share in 20 years time?

When I was a child, President Richard Nixon announced plans to develop a Space Shuttle. Not a one-use craft or capsule, but an actual "shuttle" –- and the name implied routine access to space for scientific work. Apparently, it became a little TOO routine.

Sometimes I want to throttle the general public and shout, "What, our space program isn't exciting enough for you anymore?" Even our greatest successes are seen as commonplace. After years of dumbing ourselves down with the Hollywood diet, people who stand in front of movie cameras and play pretend for a living are inexplicably worshipped, while Neil Armstrong walks down many a public street without ever being recognized.

Saturn V Standing Mockup
Will we ever top this?

I was not old enough to formulate my own opinion when the Shuttle era began, and as such, imported judgments from my parents and teachers. Everyone thought it was exciting to watch the Astronaut Corps grow, and see numerous crafts reach and return from space as if we merely had a new commute.

However, others perceived Shuttle strategy as a deceleration of "true" exploration... translation: Von Braun had already designed hardware intended to reach planet Mars, though he and most of his team have now died with that dream still un-realized.

We have the desire, the knowledge, the technology and the resources to live and work in space. Why don’t we?

I could go on for days about all the complex arguments. I like writing, but I’m astute enough to know when someone has expressed it better than I could, so I’m featuring a "guest post" of sorts today. My Facebook-friend Mike O’Hara wrote this essay in his FB-Notes section, and I truly hope you will read every word.

The Way of the Pyramids
Reprinted with Permission (slightly edited for length)

Standing on the Giza Plateau outside of Cairo stands a modern marvel for its time, the Great Pyramid. For 3800 years, it stood alone as the tallest man-made structure on the planet. The Egyptians don’t build pyramids anymore and haven’t for over 4500 years. At night, they shine lights on the monuments as a testament to the great civilization they once were. We have our own monuments to achievements of how great our civilization can be, our rockets to the moon. After reaching the unreachable, we canceled the program and let our monuments rot.

I was shocked on a visit to Huntsville to find a Saturn V laying on the grass. It was faded, the metal eaten in parts, overtaken by rodents, birds and other animals. Now, the Saturn V is restored and sits in a museum where, like the pyramids, future generations can come and say "what great people these must have been".

Restored Saturn V Rocket
Click to see the restored Saturn V in Huntsville

Manned spaceflight has been misunderstood since its beginning. We put a lot of national treasure into reaching the moon, but we never saw it as an investment. Like Steinbrenner and his Yankees, we just thought, how much will it cost to win, and just do it. Having never established it as an investment in our future and in our technology – we saw it as an expense. An investment is something you put money into and get a greater value back. If space exploration were sold as a good investment with a guaranteed return, funding it would have never been a problem. Instead, we viewed space exploration as a necessary evil – if we have to do it, then spend as little as possible.

So many people have failed the space program. Strategy mistake after mistake. Political wrangling, waning public support, a lack of creativity and vision for the future. Everyone has some accountability for the state of where the U.S. Manned Space Program is today. As I read the reports on Obama’s latest proposal, one Congressman remarked "if we not going to do it right, then why do it at all". So it has come to this. The people and not just the few fervent supporters must step up and say they want America to be leaders in space. For without that we will fail.

Every four years, NASA comes under the gun; every change in Administration threatens a new direction. In the 60s, the space program WAS the technology. We used typewriters, and most TV shows were in black and white. No CDs, DVDs, Cable, Cell Phones, Computers, iPods, or Internet. The space program made us marvel like nothing else could. Today, technology is so pervasive that not being able to reach the moon seems nonsensical. [But] It’s harder to dazzle the public's fancy with space when movies can take them there without leaving their living rooms.

I’d bet on a global alliance to develop a Mars mission before I see the USA going it alone. I hope we will adequately fund the space program, but I’m skeptical. Who will stand up and speak for NASA? For now, we seem content to live off our past laurels. I don’t want future children to go to the space center, and like the pyramids, marvel at our monuments and wonder -- who were these people that did such bold and great things?