OpEd: We Aimed for The Stars…Until We Stopped

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If you were alive and aware 40 years ago, you will likely never forget the Christmas of 1968. We had lived through a year of epic tragedy — a war going badly, mass protests, political assassinations and deadly race riots in the streets of many of our cities.

But this calamitous year ended in a way that few would have dared to predict: a remarkable worldwide television broadcast of three men taking turns reading the biblical account of creation as they orbited another world. In an instant we had created a new world for ourselves — and a year of sadness ended with a moment of great joy and inspiration.

As for the Moon race, it was all over but the landing. We had vanquished the Red Menace in this Cold War theater and yet the ironic outcome was a uniquely unifying event for the human race.

Few would disagree that this was the boldest Apollo mission of all. And given where you set the bar in that contest – that is saying something.

The first Saturn 5 to carry human beings took Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell to the Moon because Wernher von Braun and his team concluded the real risk was in the fiery ride uphill. Once they reached escape velocity, the added danger of pressing on to the Moon was incremental – or so they convinced themselves.

So less than two years after the Apollo 1 fire – and after only two unmanned test flights (one with a violent pogo problem) — off they went to the Moon. Amazing.

As von Braun once said: “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.”

Those were audacious times — hard to imagine it all happening today — and that is a sad statement.

Truth is, we have done nothing to equal (much less top) the accomplishments of Apollo. And even worse, we haven’t tried. We did something truly great, but then walked away from it. We had lightning in a bottle – and we opened the lid.

Our country has been pulling the rug out from under NASA ever since Apollo. Really, the agency is running on fumes from rocket fuel that was purchased (on a credit card no doubt) in 1961.

Why did we allow it to slip through our fingers? Sometimes I get the feeling we are the only nation that just doesn’t get it, because we are either cocky or stupid or distracted — or all of the above.

As we dust off our 40 year-old laurels, the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan-1 is now orbiting the Moon gathering new science and imagery. The mission is part of a grand plan by the Indian Space Research Organisation to begin flying manned missions by 2015.

People there — in the largest democracy in the world – are bursting with pride over their space program. And yet this is a country where 800 million people live on about $2 a day.

So don’t tell me this great, rich country of ours can’t afford to be in space — I am sick of hearing that refrain.

In fact, the next time someone tries to tell you we can’t afford NASA, that we need to spend the money “here” (as if we loft the Benjamins into orbit!), I have some advice for you: If you don’t want to mention the cost of the wars, if you would rather not get into Wall Street or Detroit bailouts, or if you don’t want to tell them the money we spend on the space program is about the same as our annual expenditure on coffee — why not mention India? Say something like this: ” can afford it — and can’t?” Or perhaps more accurately: thinks it cannot afford not to be in space — and we can? This would be a good time to remind them that when they need some tech support, they are likely talking to a smart, ambitious, young person.

You might want to tell them that it is no coincidence that the Indians — and of course the Chinese — think space exploration is important – and they also happen to be eating our lunch.

Maybe that will awaken our creative, competitive instincts again, or are we too busy “Dancing with the Stars” to make the effort to aim for them? There is no doubt our nation, as we know it, will not thrive — or even survive — if we don’t wake up. This is a big problem for our country — bigger and deeper than our little club of loyal space cadets.

Indeed, there are a lot of times that I think it is too big, too overwhelming, for us to solve. But if you are going down that road right now, think back to what we accomplished 40 years ago — and be very careful using the word “impossible.”

I have heard people say the accomplishments of Apollo cannot be replicated — that the historical dominoes lined up perfectly for all the events to fall into place with such precision and success. “It won’t happen again,” they say wistfully.

I used to nod in agreement. But I have come to believe that is a huge excuse — just another way of dismissing something as “impossible.” Can you imagine what von Braun would say about all of this? Von Braun would most certainly applaud the efforts of bold entrepreneurs trying to go to space on their own steam, but he would be horrified by the reasons they are in the space business in the first place.

To a person, these entrepreneurs bought into von Braun’s vision — popularized with the help of Collier’s, Walt Disney, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. The truth is they are staking big chunks of their personal fortune to find new ways to get to space, out of frustration that their dreams — our dreams — still are the stuff of science fiction.

Von Braun must be spinning in his grave: Isn’t it sad when you ponder the shoestring budgets, big gaps in our ability to fly to space and a hundred-billion-dollar space station to which we need to hail a Russian taxi? Our plans to return to the Moon seem as fragile as the subprime mortgage bubble — and as distant as our economic recovery. Let’s not forget von Braun wanted humans to land on Mars in the early ’80s! Von Braun saw Apollo as a stepping-stone — not a dead end. At the news conference following the launch of Apollo July of 1969, he was asked to sum up the importance of putting a man on the Moon.

“I think it is in equal importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on land,” he replied eloquently.

But instead of crawling, we’ve been lying on the beach, soaking up the sun. Pass the cocoa butter.

So what would von Braun do? He would have shouted about this crisis from the rooftops. He was as much a brilliant communicator as a remarkable engineer and manager.

He talked to anyone who would listen — from the El Paso Rotary Club — to the coast-to-coast audience of the Wonderful World of Color.

We can do the same — in our own ways. But it means you have to get outside your cushy knothole and start proselytizing. The rotary club is fine. Start a blog. Call into a radio station. Send a letter to the editor. Give some tours of the cool places where you work. Get someone in to see a launch. Visit a classroom. It doesn’t matter, just do something to make people outside your world appreciate all that we have come to take for granted.

We can still control our destiny — we can stack the dominoes as we see fit. If we don’t, we will very likely get hurt when they fall.

Von Braun once said: “Crash programs fail because they are based on theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month.”

Well Apollo was a crash program — and those babies are now middle-aged.

And we owe it to ourselves, von Braun’s legacy and to the generations who were not alive to see it firsthand to ensure that when future historians write about us, they won’t say the Apollo generation failed its own children.

Miles O’Brien is an independent writer, producer and TV reporter. He covered space and aviation for CNN for nearly 17 years. This Commentary was adapted from his Oct. 22, 2008 von Braun Memorial Dinner, hosted by the National Space Club. O’Brien can be reached at milesobrien@mac.com