Thursday, July 28, 2005

This and That

Discovery docks at the space station but it's not all razmatazz. It's a new era of self-honesty in space. Further shuttle flights have been grounded until they figure out the foam debris problem, even admitting publicly that it could be a lethal problem. We watch this shuttle flight with a heightened suspense and wonder -- part of the wonder being the question, is this level of exploration worth the risk?

My father, the former rocket engineer, believes it's not worth it. His projects were all unmanned missions, and he feels that we can learn enough by sending instruments, not human beings, up there. Gone are the days of the cowboy physicists like my father and his friends, one of whom was space wundkerkind Bob Truax, who was a protege of Goddards, and who later created a rocket-powered motorcycle for Evel Knievel to (almost) jump the Snake River Gorge. Gone are the braggadocio days of the 1960s, when putting a man on the moon meant supremacy on earth. We know better now. We are sobered rocket kids.

I have a friend who's a lawyer at NASA. He reports the mood of optimism for future projects with a quite different glow in his eyes than the fiery look those of those early rocket engineers. He is tempered, as we all are, by a new age and millennium, when possibility blends with practicality, and disasters in space seem an unthinkable price for our curiosity about the stars.

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I was recently in Washington, D.C. and visited The Library of Congress's gorgeous new building. I say "new" because it was built in 1898, and is relatively recent for a capitol building. It's also the most beautiful. They had an exhibit on Walt Whitman up in which I read a curious fact. Whitman lived in Washington during the Civil War, felt he could help the beleaguered President Lincoln by stationing himself where he would see Lincoln ride by in his carriage every day. Whitman made it a point to salute the President, cheer him on, as it were. He felt it helped Lincoln. A selection of Whitman's poems about Lincoln shows the poet's sense of identification with Lincoln.

Today, July 28, is the anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment that made slaves citizens. America has come a long way in 137 years.

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Reading alert -- for SF Bay Area friends: I'm going to join John Amen, editor/publisher of The Pedestal magazine again for a reading at Valencia Street Books on Saturday, October 22. I'll post a note with details as the date approaches, but if you're in the area and would like to come and say hello, mark your calendars. I'd love to see you.

2 comments:

  1. Great perspective on the space issue. NASA has always had this internal tension between the manned spaceflight folks and the unmanned/science folks.

    However this all plays out, I hope it ultimately results in a cohesive strategy for returning the most value to society from exploration - whatever form it might take.

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  2. Hi Carmi --

    Of course, the idea of balancing the risks with the rewards has to be tempered with the knowledge that the very means on which we communicate about this would not exist without that early, insane Space Race. I remember my father taking me to see The Computer at Space Technology Labs where he worked. It filled two rooms with whirring disks inside glassed-in towers. It was less powerful than the calculator sitting on my desk, he now tells me. They sent a man to the moon with less equipment than what I'm using to write my blog. So risk-reward is hard to computer, even on today's computers!

    Rachel

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