I don’t mind telling you, this shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine killing nearly 300 people is not only an enormous tragedy to the victims and their families but it has raised some old personal fears about the possibility of nuking it out with the Russians that I haven’t felt in decades. I don’t pretend to understand much of what goes on in that part of the world or why a significant number of people living in former Soviet Communist states are now rebelling against the very independence they craved in 1989 and are now siding with Russian premier…excuse me, “President” Vladimir Putin” the longtime KGB guy who sure seems as though he’d like to get the old Soviet gang back together. How some idiot could possibly think that firing a surface to air missile at a civilian jetliner and bringing it down in a ball of fire would help their cause, is beyond belief. Instead, what we have once again is a world on the brink.
We better not get too mad with the Russians though..or they with us. We could lose our only ride into space.
At about the same time Americans were celebrating the 45th anniversary of Neal Armstrong’s first steps on the moon this past week, NASA was announcing that it intends to buy six more seats, at 70 million dollars a pop, on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station for the next four years.
NASA is funding development of a couple of commercial space craft: SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus. Both have made successful supply missions to the station but won’t be ready to carry actual astronauts until 2017 so we continue to hitchhike with the ruskies. The United States hasn’t sent a manned vehicle into space since NASA scuttled the shuttle in 2011. The Soyuz is one of only two operational orbital manned spacecraft in the world, the other being China’s Shenzhou which until a couple years ago was still sending up test dummies meaning its working out bugs we solved decades ago so nobody outside of China is lining up to ride with them just yet.
Outer space used to be so exciting. I vividly remember that day in late July of 1969 watching history unfold on television with my young family. Two year old Patty was more interested in her toys than TV, but I do recall holding 4 year old Suzan in my lap during the moon landing and again later when Neal Armstrong first set foot on the surface. I was hoping to make sure she would have these historic moments imprinted on her brain. It wasn’t long, though, before she lost interest and squirmed free to join her sister at play.
I’ve loved and followed every tidbit of news about space exploration from Sputnik to the Mars rovers but, I’m afraid, like my daughter so many years ago, I’ve lost interest in launching astronauts into orbit and would rather just play with my toys. This isn’t to say the universe has no appeal. On the contrary, it is fascinating beyond measure to see close-up images from Mars and other planets and moons in our solar system and beyond but, let’s face it, we were hoping to discover life and haven’t and likely won’t. The pictures from space telescopes have opened our eyes to how mind-blowingly vast not only our galaxy is but revealed that ours is just one of billions of other galaxies; all of them impossibly out of reach to humans unless aliens come by and give us a lift. (Watched the last third of Close Encounters of the Third Kind last night. Looking at it now, they could have easily cut the movie length by a third shortening those dragged out reaction shots at the Devil’s Tower landing site and John Williams’ crescendo-filled score. But it’s still a fun flick.) The problem is, everything in space is so far away. Voyager 1, launched 30 years on an exploration mission is the fastest man-made vehicle ever built and has reached a top speed of 36 thousand miles an hour. It has only recently slipped out of our solar system. Light travels at 186 thousand miles a “second” and it would take 490 years traveling at the speed of light to reach the closest planet detected so far by astronomers that could sustain life as we know it.
I guess there are plans for another manned (and womanned, presumably) mission to the Moon in 2018. The idea would be to set up a base for future missions to Mars and elsewhere.
I hate to be a pessimist but I’ll believe it when the rockets roar. Americans love a challenge and discovering new things. But we also have short attention spans and get bored after objectives are achieved (The Moon and Mars) and other agendas ( Space stations and shuttles) aren’t so exciting. I can already hear the outrage over NASA wasting money on building vehicles to go where we’ve already been. What about health care, they’ll say, and the homeless and global warm…er, I mean climate change?
It’s human nature to desire the exploration of new worlds in the heavens but, I’m afraid, until somebody figures out how to get there through wormholes or alternate dimensions, we’ll have to fill our space fantasies through the courtesy of Hollywood and 3D.
One of the great thrills of my professional life was getting the chance to meet and interview Wally Schirra..one of the original seven Mercury Astronauts and the only one to fly in all three manned space flight programs; Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He was in Sioux Falls speaking at Augustana, I believe, and agreed to visit our Keloland Early News show.
He talked about working alongside Walter Cronkite during television coverage of Apollo 11 and how both tried rather unsuccessfully to maintain their composure on-air during those critical moments before and after the moon landing.
After our interview, he needed a ride to the airport which I was more than happy to provide. During that short trip I asked if he would have liked to have flown aboard the shuttle in later life like John Glenn. I’m sure he said yes but added he wasn’t a big fan of the shuttle program reflecting on it like most Americans, I think, saying he didn’t see how it was challenging our imagination for space exploration.
Wally Schirra used to get on his bosses nerves at NASA saying things like that. It made me like him all the more.