Thursday, December 27, 2007

How Important Was Apollo?

It started with a Jeopardy question this past week. I believe the topic was "Men of Space" or something targeted my direction. The answer was: "He was a World War II veteran and the oldest person to set foot on the Moon." I racked my brain for 20 seconds and came up with the correct answer: "Who was Alan Shepard?"

My stepmother, who is an avid Jeopardy watcher along with my dad, asked, "What mission was that? I thought he was one of the early ones."

I explained that, yes, Shepard was the first American in space (not in orbit), and that he'd landed on Apollo 14. To which my surprised stepmother replied, "You mean we went more than once?"

I said, "Uh, yeah. Six times. Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17."

"When was the last one?"


I'm not certain who was more astonished: my stepmom or me. And then I had to go back and consider where she was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was a housewife, a secretary at Eastern Airlines, and a mother of two. Aside from going to Florida a few times, I doubt she had much connection to the space program. She obviously only remembered the first landing of Apollo 11. And I realized, right there, that this was NASA's and now partially my problem. If people who were alive as adults at the time don't even remember five landings on the Moon, what the hell chance do we have to maintain interest today?

We absolutely need to give people a reason to care about space exploration, give them a stake in the action: alternative energy research, helium-3 prospecting, scouting out a site for the first lunar hotel--something! Astronauts cavorting around doing scientific research and picking up rocks will NOT enthuse the public. Hell, the original astronaut in question, Alan Shepard, was the first person to bring golf to the Moon, and that scarcely warranted more than a bit of humor for the evening news.

NASA people are often so consumed by the coolness of their hardware that they lose sight of why we're going at all. The first time, we had a human reason to go: competition with the Soviets. Beyond that, it was research, and that was cut quickly as "more important things to do on Earth" took over NASA's healthy 4 percent of the budget. Today, we're in competition with Russia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and maybe others.

Will another competition really spur us onward? Some folks think or hope so, but I'm not so sure. Our culture is not the same as it was in 1961. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" is practically blasphemy in this "gimme gimme gimme" society. "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard" would also be met by blank stares today. Do something hard? Jeez, wouldn't that require work, sacrifice, the potential for failure? Why, we can't have that, someone might get hurt! Left out!

Perhaps this business is also on my mind because I got the DVDs of From the Earth to the Moon for Christmas. I had the set on VHS, but gave up my video tape recorder when I moved to Alabama. The Moon series, produced by Tom Hanks, has even more resonance for me now than it did when I first saw it, because now I'm part of the whole go-to-the-Moon thing. It's thrilling to think that I might have some small part in doing something great like that. And yet there are so many people out there for whom space is, to them, irrelevant. My passion for this business led me (albeit later than it should have) to the work I have now. I cannot imagine a better fit for my interests and talents. And yet I am faced with the same problem as NASA: getting people who are NOT passionate about space to at least pay attention. It is both mind-boggling and frustrating, but what the heck, it keeps me happy and the bills paid.

More work to do tomorrow. I need to find a way to convert my verbal and visceral love for this adventure into something "normal" poeple will accept--hell, at least pay attention to! Tom Hanks did the space program a mighty huge favor making that series. I guess now I'll have to see what I can do.

No comments: