Thursday, July 18, 2013

A profound experience from my past

More than 60 years ago, an issue of Collier's magazine initiated a series of articles about the new frontier of space exploration.  You can find the first articles here, and they were a huge influence on my young soul.  To this very day, the images illustrating that article have the power to send me on a trip into that imaginary world, where space exploration was not an item of Cold War propaganda but rather an expression of the soaring spirit of humanity to go beyond the confines of the Earth's surface and see the world through an entirely new vision.

I recall the excitement I felt with these images.  I yearned desperately to be a part of that exploration, to see the Earth from the viewpoint of a space station, to fly over tropical cyclones and look down deep into their eyes, to stare into the blackness of space and see the stars without the distorting effects of the atmosphere, to be a scientist on board and participate in the excitement of discovery from this amazing new perspective.  Alas, reality intrudes, informing me that will never happen.  I would gladly exchange two weeks aboard the International Space Station with whatever allotment of life remains to me.

To this day, I'm haunted by those images from Collier's magazine.  I still have powerful emotional responses to those images, in no small part because they stimulate my memory of my youthful first responses.  How could I not want to be a part of that process illustrated in those pages?  Give me 2 weeks on the International Space Station (ISS) and I could die thereafter a very happy man.  Despite the dangers of the process of getting there, I would eagerly risk my life to lift off on a journey to the ISS that now orbits the Earth more or less as envisioned in the Collier's magazine article (although it's not rotating to provide artificial gravity, for some reason).  Microgravity in orbit has proven to be a major barrier to humans spending much time in orbit - our bodies have evolved for a world with gravity and they deteriorate rapidly in the microgravity of Earth orbit.  This is a complication that wasn't envisioned in 1952.  I'm sure many more exist of which I'm unaware.  It's a hostile environment - being in orbit in space.

Nor did the vision of 1952 truly account for the huge expense of sending humans and their cargo into orbit.  A superpower like the USA is barely capable of paying for such costs and, as it has turned out, we Americans are no longer in the Space Shuttle business, but rather are dependent on the Russians to get our astronauts into space.  There have been no fiscal incentives of substance that can bankroll the cost of space exploration as envisioned in 1952.  Yes, there are many things like GPS technology and communications technology that are dependent on spacecraft - we can afford those, apparently.  But we can't afford paying for the dream of those early visionaries (including, of course, the rehabilitated Nazi, Werner von Braun) who saw a much more peaceful and scientific purpose for space exploration - not space exploitation.  We have lost our zeal for this vision and are no longer willing to support the cost of space exploration as we once did when inspired by the words of JFK (who apparently was using space exploration more as a propaganda tool in the Cold War than as a sincere desire to see that vision become reality).  We made it to the Moon - but killed our dream in the process.  It's damned expensive.  And we haven't been back to the Moon.

There are some private sector efforts to exploit the dream - pay big bucks and we'll give you a couple of orbits on the threshold of space - or invest in an effort to mine the asteroid belt for minerals.  Or whatever.  There's nothing inherently wrong about hoping to capitalize on space exploration, but it simply can't inspire anyone except perhaps those greedy for fiscal gain.  The initial investment is large and the payoff is uncertain.  Will the exploration of space be bankrolled by the corporations?  I doubt it.  They need to see profits on the proverbial "bottom line".

A big part of my emotional response to seeing those Collier's Magazine images again is associated with the nostalgia for my lost youth, I suppose.  The dream is alive, but struggling to deal with the reality of what we have become and how we have chosen to forsake our dreams for the "reality" of this Earth-bound life.  I see the death of my dream in the same way that I can see my own death - inevitable but not something to which I can look forward to with any particular joy.  I hope to live long enough to see the first up-close images of Pluto in 2015.  It's not obvious what new vistas lie ahead, as we seem more and more focused on a very restricted vision.  What vision inspires a 6 or 7-year old today?  I wonder if they can feel the same excitement I did in 1952.


Don Baker said...

In the movie Apollo 13 there is a scene where the astronauts are conducting a live broadcast on day 3 of the mission. All the family members are brought into NASA to watch the telecasts, only to find out that the three networks "dumped" them. A NASA PR person explained to Lovell's wife that "we've made going to the moon about as exciting as...". We did seem to "lose interest" in travel to the moon once we'd been a few times. As a kid I watched all the Gemini and Apollo missions with great interest. I used to go out on the swingset and imagine I was traveling to Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, etc. Interestingly, the very first episode of "Lost In Space" (very cheesy by today's standards) depicted "Mission Control" in October of 1997. This apparently is one vision in the mid 1960s of where we "might" be in 30+ years. But, we haven't come close to manned travel beyond the moon, and as you say, haven't even been back to the moon in over 40 years. Apparently, when I was about the same age you were in 1952, I was also very interested in the Gemini and Apollo missions. Good memories. Incidentally I was just reading about the Voyager spacecraft still sending a detectable signal from the very fringe of our solar system, where the solar wind is just barely detectable. And it's taken 35+ years to get just that far at our current available speeds. The distances in space are hard to comprehend. If the next closest star were in the path of Voyager, it would take Voyager maybe 50,000 years to get there. Thanks for posting this.

===== Roger Edwards ===== said...

Wonderful essay! For some of the Apollo program, I wasn't born yet; for the rest, I was too young to remember. Since then, I and multiple later generations of children have cycled through that same dreaming process with only anecdotal concepts of men on the moon, illustrated by grainy photos and movie clips. We have no direct experience of the thrill and awe of one of the greatest accomplishments of ours or any nation. Parents and grandparents have told tales of the overwhelming astonishment and wonder they felt, whatever their ages at the time, at seeing it broadcast live, marveling at a previously unfathomable idea coming to fruition. The space shuttle program seems to have held a smaller measure of that dream for me, as I was an adolescent upon its inaugural launch, imagining being the first meteorologist in space (alas, full-time shift work in a beloved corner of meteorology interfered, and I'm at peace with that).

Like you, I wonder what will inspire the dreaming of science-oriented kids of today. Maybe it will be the amazing images and videos arising from outreach-minded ISS astronauts like Chris Hadfield and others. Or maybe it won't be space at all, but medical frontiers, oceanic discoveries, natural disasters, or pure fiction thereabout. [Awful as that movie was in other respects, I've spoken with more than one met student inspired by Twister.]

Something is missing, though--the great collective pride, admiration and amazement at the ability to "go where no one has gone before". I wish I could travel back in time to experience that moment with the old folks. You're fortunate that way.

Dan Bush said...

This is a great essay. I enjoyed reading it and relating to it. On a personal level I was influenced greatly by iconic images of the late 70's and early 80's of the planets coming back from the Voyager spacecraft and the space art that I saw in books aimed at young readers. The images coming back from Voyager, coincidentally or not, occurred at the exact same time that my parents gave me a small telescope with which I found the ringed planet Saturn purely by chance. Little did I know that I would be spending the next 30 years of my life trying to recreate that initial excitement of discovery. Sometimes even to this day I have succeeded. Chesley Bonestell, the wonderful “space landscape” painter that did the illustrations in the article that you site, created an image in 1948 that is forever burned into my mind as it is an image that was used frequently in Time-Life books and the like. The name of that painting is “Saturn as Seen from Titan”. It has been touted as the painting that launched a thousand careers in science. It still holds up to this day.

I am of the opinion that space is not a great place to visit ourselves. It's just not meant to be.
Although I'm sure that the sights are magnificent and awe inspiring there are just too many problems associated with getting there and staying there the greatest of which is that one can die at any time from a multitude of reasons. On this last ISS mission they are studying how astronauts eye sight deteriorates after prolonged missions. That coupled with the unpleasantness of going to the bathroom in space and the enormous distances to the other planets and stars I think I'll just stay on Earth where the sights are still beautiful and awe inspiring even from this vantage point.

Thanks again for getting me to thinking. Dan Bush

Dave Brown said...

The only high school history class I remember anything of significance about was the day John Glenn was launched into orbit. It was a morning class and the teacher was rambling on about something or other of historical significance. However, my thoughts were with John during that particular class.

I had a small battery powered transistor radio in my pocket with a thin cord that extended from the radio through a shirt buttonhole and then along the length of my arm inside the sleeve of the shirt to my left hand which held a small ear piece in my ear. Fortunately my teacher was in lecture mode that day and didn't ask too many questions of her students. My heart was pounding as Walter Cronkite, I believe, described the launch in beautiful detail. I could only imagine what John was seeing out of his small porthole as he entered orbit. It had to be more interesting than the view I had in that high school classroom that morning.

Those days of man's early attempts to travel in earth orbit were exciting times for a young person with a vivid imagination. Rockets, space capsules, earth orbits, splash-downs in the Atlantic Ocean. I wondered how I could be part of it all. I finally settled for a career in meteorology which, as it turned out, was also an exciting way to spend my working years.