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Sunday, July 26, 2009

We need to dream.

I once spoke to Chuck Yeager, the legendary Air Force test pilot. I had lunch with the “fastest man alive,” John Stapp, I took a long road trip across the desert with the first female shuttle commander, Eileen Collins. I’ve interviewed Story Musgrave.

I have myself only flown in choppers, transports and for two glorious hours, once, an AT-38 Fighting Falcon flying alongside an F-117 Stealth Fighter.

But I’ve met people who have truly lived in the skies. They were and are truly heroic and they probably would never have seen themselves that way. It’s not that they had no sense of the history, which surrounded them; it’s just that they seemed to always have the mission in sight. I don’t know if that’s true. I guess it is just how it always seemed to me.

The moon missions have been in the news a lot lately, and Constellation, the next series of planned return shots to the moon, is well beyond the theory stage and into production. Costs are about what you’d expect – and in a tough economy, that is going to be an even harder sell, than usual.

But I think a recent interview with Buzz Aldrin, one of the astronauts on Apollo 11, really said what should be said again and again until people remember the qualities, which have always made us great. We are explorers.

At our core, we seek to push the boundaries. I think, when we lose that drive, we lose ourselves.

For years NASA has released publications aimed at explaining the value of space exploration in the face of the truth – that public interest was increasingly waning. These publicatons identified the hundreds of day-to-day conveniences and advances, which have come out of space exploration. Today you can find those same kind of lists simplified and highlighted on NASA’s website.

But still, Shuttle mission after Shuttle mission lit off for the impossibly vast ocean void, which surrounds our little island of a planet, and most people never even took notice, until the disasters. I suppose that’s human nature, but what I do know is that it is sad.

People no different from you or I once walked on the surface of the Moon. They dared to take the chance of dying in a truly alien place, with no one to even provide them with a decent burial.

The words may seem hollow now. The concept of moon missions and space walks and space stations probably seems so antiquated and so disconnected from the lives we all lead here on the only planet we will ever know.

But people did walk on the Moon.

And just as Buzz Aldrin has suggested many times, I would say to you now that to return there may be a dead end. We’ve collected or rocks, tested and re-tested the samples which were taken, Photos have been analyzed, data recorded and re-recorded. What is left for us there? The moon is a desolate place, certainly not the finest stepping-stone you could ask for to leapfrog into the places beyond. It will be a difficult beachhead at best.

But NASA’s goal is to build a long-term presence on the Moon. The stated reason on their website is to search for resources, learn to work and live in a harsh environment and look for more clues concerning the way planets were formed. Aren’t we already doing that now, here on Earth? People have done those things, as long as there have been people. We don’t need the Moon for that.

In fact, we don’t need to spend huge amounts of money to watch a handful of people bounce around in 1/6th gravity, chipping at dusty rocks, motoring around on an updated Rover in a place where we have already left footprints. We don’t need more photos of “Earth-rises,” We don’t need another 842 pounds of rubble. In fact, NASA’s own website, while providing a truly profound number of details, does not provide a clear, solid explanation for the proposed return.

Critics will argue that costs are the reason we shouldn’t do it – that we should focus on our Earthly troubles. There’s no reason to go to the moon as long as there are people fighting and dying and starving and killing right here, right now. The critics might be right, but not for any of those reasons. They’re right because we are the Yeagers, and the Stapps, the Musgraves and the Collins. We are explorers and we have suppressed our true nature for too long, submerging it in the comfortable numbness of modern living, in an all-to-familiar world. The critics are correct. We shouldn’t return to the moon, because we need to dream.

We should go to Mars.

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