Friday, December 21, 2012

I've Seen Moon-Walkers, and They're Old

I've seen moon-walkers face to face. I shook hands and exchanged words with Buzz Aldrin, Gene Kranz and watched many others as they got a standing ovation at the Museum of Flight gala in September. The youngest moon walker, Charles Duke, is 77 years old. All of their space-expansion glory dates back to 1969 - 1972. When I saw these amazing people a realization that accompanied my inspiration was that they were old. Not only that, they are also the only ones that did this. Unlike other positive beginnings, this one seems more like a blip on our terrestrial bound existence rather than a the sign of things to come. Am I simply impatient?

This year we lost a moon walker, the very first who walked on the moon. The one whose first footprint is etched in our collective moon memory and still adorns the dusty Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong. Regretfully, I did not get the chance to meet him, but I did get the chance to see, shake hands and exchange words with some of the people who walked on the moon or made it possible. I hold the utmost respect to them. It should be very clear I admire their courage, abilities, and sacrifices to the highest extent. Sadly, however, they are relics of something great that in the 40 years since the last man left the moon, did not really continue or grow. Now, when the moon walkers are facing extinction, we risk severing the little chance of continuity that we have.

I don't remember where I was when the first landing on the moon happened in 1969. I also don't remember where I was when the last one took place or when the last man on the moon took off, leaving behind rovers and landing gear. Why? Because I was born after it all happened. I am a child of the Space Shuttle era, an era that didn't have any boot with a human foot occupying it touching the moon or any other space object that's not man-made.

I know there are many advancements and exciting space programs going on. Curiosity's amazing Mars landing, more test flights for SpaceShipTwo (not powered yet), more ISS science, SpaceX demonstrating they can repeatedly supply the ISS like only nations have been capable of in the past or Felix Baumgartner's record jump, just to name a few. Without taking away from any of these advancements compared to where we were a year ago, would we be so excited about a ship that goes from Spain to Italy after ships sailed from Spain to India America? Or would we celebrate an Olympian that ran 100m in 10 seconds once the world record was 9.9?

I also realize spaceflight, especially human spaceflight, is hard. It's effectively playing with the irony of a gravity well that's almost too strong to overcome, compounded by human factors such as radiation and micro-gravity that we (and by we I mean very healthy men and women in their prime) can withstand for less than a year, at least as far as we know. Human space exploration/settlement/colonization (take your pick) is effectively a perpetual stretch goal for mankind that, when not met, like other stretch goals, still doesn't make us label ourselves as low-performers in the virtual human-race review that we put ourselves through perpetually.

As 2012 draws to an end, the 50th anniversary to Kennedy's moon speech, 40th anniversary to the last moon landing with Apollo-17, the year of stripping the space shuttles for parts and turning what's left into museum exhibits, the year when we became completely reliant on the Soyuz for manned spaceflight to orbit, and the last year of my 30s, I can't help but feel disappointed for these nice old people who didn't (yet?) get to see the fruit of their labor get completely fulfilled in the form of continuation of their moon-work.

I wish us all a great 2013. A year of successes in space and beyond, a year that will make Neil Armstrong smile on us from above, a year of continued push forward, a year of obtaining stretch goals. Oh, and a big party for my 40th birthday, of course!

I will leave you with the responses of Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan to Congressman Neugenbauer when asked about the importance of manned spaceflight. My favorite quote (Cernan): "Louis and Clark didn't send an empty canoe up the river"...

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