Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Write Stuff

Tom Wolfe has a brilliant piece in Sunday's New York Times about the problem NASA had of peaking too soon. Reading his essay, one is taken back to the heady Space Race days, which began in October, 1957, when the Russians fired Sputnik into space, and ended 40 years ago when Americans ankled about on the moon. We won the space race! Yet, as Wolfe points out, there was joy and dancing in the streets and unconfined national pride in 1962 when John Glenn went for a five-hour orbital ride, and then the moon landing in 1969, and then... I don't remember the same excitement about subsequent flights. It seemed that, having arrived on the moon, Americans then said, "Oh, boy! We're back on the moon! Let's go again and again and again!" and so we did, and for what purpose?

We all knew guys who were into model rocketeering. I remember the company that sold stuff to some neighbors who were into it: Estes. They're still around, selling rocket stuff and now they have added radio control airplanes and other items to the inventory. This is not a bad way for young people to spend their time; it certainly beats sitting in front of a video game for hours on end, committing Grand Theft Auto to memory.

In the same way that "-gate" has been appended to countless words in the long-lasting wake of Watergate to denote scandal, lying and coverup, "-nik" was added onto words after the Russians got their first satellite up there, and that's how Herb Caen, a columnist in San Francisco, came up with "beatnik" for a term to describe those people who had previously been called "bohemians." In Baltimore, of course, we were not satisfied with having local Bohemians. We insisted on National Bohemians.

So...argue back if you will...but I once asked a scientifically-oriented co-worker to identify just what, as a nation, we had derived after spending 10 gazillion dollars to send people to the moon ahead of Alice Kramden.

"All sorts of things, " came the reply. "Digital watches, Corning Ware and Tang, just to name three!"

Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty! Assuming that, absent a need for digital watches aboard a spacecraft, someone else would have invented such timepieces if only to give America a car dashboard clock that actually worked, I think that Corning Ware might not be quite worth that much money, seeing as how it is so readily available at every yard sale, Good Will and Salvation Army store you see. Tang - the powdered imitation orangeade - just makes me think of when Bart Simpson went to Kamp Krusty, only to be served Krusty Brand® imitation gruel.

I know that it was a Democrat (JFK) who committed America to landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and I just have to think he had other benefits in mind besides a watch, cookware, and fake juice. Maybe we should spend a bit more time taking care of things here on this earth for a while. As for now, if you have more than one commode where you live, just think...you're better off than the 13 people currently aboard the International Space Station, who are all wondering why NASA failed to send along a digital toilet plunger for this mission.

1 comment:

Ralph said...

I'm with you on this one, Mark. There was true and legitimate wonderment when we did it for the first time, and seeing Mother Earth as a discrete and finite object is edifying and sobering. But unmanned exploration is OK by me. The idea of colonizing the moon or other planets--essentially exporting humankind's now-earthbound afflictions to the universe--is about as ugly an idea as I can think of. And the money spent sending people off the planet could be much better used improving the lives of the billions who will never leave their birth-villages, much less the blue sphere where those villages are situated.