When We Left the Earth

Thursday, June 19, 2008
I know that Hot Chick Jeri and her family are watching When We Left the Earth on The Discovery Channel, but if the rest of you haven't seen this, get cracking.

We've been watching on our DVR (commercials = bleh), and got caught up last night.

Wow.

Just, WOW.

Every time I learn a bit more about the U.S. space program, I am a little more in awe, a little more respectful, a little more amazed at the audacity and courage of the engineers, scientists and astronauts who were involved in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

These people were insane. But in a completely cool way.

In one of the episodes we watched last night, they were talking about Apollo 8 (the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon). Typically, the wives and families would get together to watch the coverage of a mission, and in this case, they interviewed Susan Borman, wife of Frank Borman. During the mission, she asked the Flight Controller what the chances were of the astronauts making it home. His response? "About 50/50." And she was happy. Because her husband had told her the chances were much less.

I think the thing that struck me about the early years of the space program was the fact that the astronauts knew they were involved in a dangerous and risky proposition. Space is a hostile environment, and these folks knew there was a very real possibility they wouldn't return. And they were okay with that risk, because for them, the reward was worth it. And what a reward! To walk on the moon, to leave the planet! These men personified the explorer spirit...what a spectacular legacy!

It seems that today's agencies (and their members) are much more risk-averse - and that's unfortunate. While I believe that reasonable efforts should be made to preserve life, and no one should be asked to risk their life if they don't want to, we're talking about leaving our planet of origin. Risky. At least as risky as leaving your continent of origin, and look at how many folks died settling North America.

The Right Stuff, indeed. Thanks, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Your life's work humbles me, and makes me proud, too.

12 comments:

The Mechanicky Gal said...

It seems that back in teh day the Spirit of Adventure was alive and kickin'. Today, we have to do our Operational Risk Management, and if the risk is high, regardless of the potential rewards, and the people that volunteer regardless of the dangers, then that perticular mission is a no-go. We have trained ourselves to be safe, non-risk taking stay-at-homes.
Boo.

Shawn Powers said...

No friggen doubt. Mercury, Gemini, & Apollo teams? OMG.

It's like, here, we'll give you twice the technology we had. Now fly your iPod to the moon. Let us know how it goes.

Janiece Murphy said...

Boo, indeed.

And Shawn said "Fly your iPod to the moon." Hee!

mom in northern said...

How about the true grit of the early Mariners who believed the earth was flat?

It is humankinds insatiable curiosity and grit to see what is "beyond" that keeps this old lady hopeful that we will make it.

Eric said...

I think the reason there's good cause to be risk-adverse is that you have to ask yourself is the risk even necessary? As brave as the Apollo astronauts were, our most successful explorers in terms of science, endurance and distance have names like Voyager, Ulysses, Cassini, and Spirit and Opportunity.

I've been a sci-fi geek since I was three or four years old and spent most of my childhood wanting to be an astronaut in a serious way before giving up the dream for serious reasons--I didn't grow out of it so much as I realized I was better at science than physical activity, and so my interests shifted to astrophysics and astronomy before I realized I was lousy at math. I'm boring you with autobiography just for the sake of my bona fides: I love, or want to love, the idea of brave men and women riding a pillar of fire into the sky. I want space stations and habitats and planetary bases and colonies and colony ships and the whole epic Humanity In Space vision....

Except it's more romantic than practical, and even if we do end up Out There, isn't it probable the road will be paved by robots, not astronauts?

The Apollo program is a bittersweet thing to me: brave men working on a project that was really more a political spectacle than anything else. We didn't do it because we should have so much as because we wanted to show everyone that our way, the American way, of doing things was far more 133t than the slow and gritty Soviet way. And we were right, but the problem was that once we showed we were right there wasn't a whole lot of reason to go back, and so NASA got bogged down with the scraps of an irrelevant successor project: a space shuttle to service a non-existent space station for a never-to-be-built moonbase. Sticking us with a forty-year-old spaceship design that sucks funding from all sorts of less-glamorous but in every other way superior missions to explore the universe remotely.

I respect and am even in awe of the men who braved the void to walk on the moon. But I have to confess: when I think of the Voyagers crossing the heliopause, it's a different magnitude of awe.

Sorry if I sound like some kind of curmudgeon....

Janiece Murphy said...

Eric, get off my lawn! ::Shakes Fist::

Just kidding.

I do see the value in robotic exploration. Spirit and Opportunity also fill me with awe and wonder. Those little guys are the shit, and the engineers on that program have my complete respect. I even sent a thank-you note!

But eventually, I believe we need to get off this rock and move on. Is that a practical goal right this minute? Probably not. Will it be practical 100 years from now? Maybe, and culturally, we must be ready.

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo teams were, above all else, ready, and I think we've lost that spirit.

Go, humans, go...all the way to another "home planet."

Does that make me naive and too-optimistic? Maybe so. But I'm okay with that.

Eric said...

I think that for us to be culturally ready we'll need to be more technologically prepared.

The difference between going to space and Europe's (and later America's) westward expansion is that space will never be safe to travel in. The explorer whose ship sank on the way to South America might conceivably cling to a piece of driftwood long enough to wash up on some desolate shore, Robinson Crusoe-style. The frontiersman snowed in during a hard winter might rough it Alfred Packer-like... erm... okay, bad example. But you get the idea. There are few places on Earth that even begin to approach the fundamental hostility of the environment of space, and they're not places we frequent, although we've sent a few submariners or pilots to visit for relatively short bursts, and usually out of some major necessity like national security.

But I think I digress. For the cultural change you refer to, the iconic figure if Richard Branson, not John Glenn. That's not to compare them as heroes--I think we know where the chips fall on that one. But for space travel to be as ordinary as air travel, it will have to be like air travel--something that people do for tourism and business enough for the economics to become manageable.

Incidentally, I that's not likely to happen as long as long as getting up there involves burning so much mass. Sitting on top of a stack of explosives isn't just unsafe, it's also expensive. Look for a space elevator--which has it's own risks, but is a vastly more efficient method of hitting LEO--before we have the kind of space travel you're looking for. And for that to be built, I think we have to look at what the motive will be.

Europe didn't go to the New World because it was there. Europe went because there was money there. Europe went because extremely rich individuals--people-states, to (I think) coin a phrase--saw a way to build their wealth and influence. It's only after a little more than a century (and a series of religious wars and schisms in Europe) that the refugees begin to come to settle for reasons other than personal and national wealth. Point being: I doubt people will go to space because they can--they will go because there's money there, or because they have nowhere else.

O'course, I could be totally wrong.

Eric said...

Scary afterthough:

Going with the refugee premise, a logical possibility is that the first interstellar travelers will be Christian fundamentalists, leaving Earth for exactly the same reasons the Puritans went to Massachusetts--nobody likes them and it's mutual. Anyway, there's an image for you.

Janiece Murphy said...

Hm. I think for the vast majority, your correlation of space travel to air travel is a valid one. Most people aren't cut out to be John Glenn (or Richard Branson, if the truth be told), and require a certain level of safety and certainty before they'd leave Earth.

But someone has to be first, and that someone will probably face vastly more risk than an "average" person would accept. If we ever colonize planets (or meteors, or moons, or space stations), the initial thrust will be a dangerous proposition.

If the exploration that already taken place has taught us anything, it's that technology and engineering won't progress without some sort of push - whether that's political (space program), economic (European colonialism) or personal (Richard Branson).

While I realize I am naive, I want people who are WILLING to take those risks to have that opportunity.

So I think it's fair to say that the wherewithal for such endeavors has to be motivated by a political or economic impetus, but the folks that actually execute the mission - they're the ones who push the envelope and expand our race's limits.

So the question becomes - what's the impetus?

Janiece Murphy said...

And Eric, bite your tongue on that afterthought. I'm much more interested in leaving the Christian Fundies here, to inherit our worn out, sad planet while I go into space.

Shawn Powers said...

Awe... does that mean I can't come. :(

Or can we just leave the freeze dried whack-a-loon types here?

:D

Janiece Murphy said...

Shawn, to my mind, only Freeze-Dried Wack-a-Loons need not apply.

So you're in!