Footprints on the Moon

A grandfather’s love is special. With each day that passes, I find more and more truth in that statement. For months, Linda and I had looked forward to Laken’s birth. There was anticipation, a little apprehension and a lot of unbridled excitement. When the day came and she finally arrived, I was a bit surprised how calm I was. In some ways, even when I held her for the first time, it seemed a little too “matter of fact”. But, as the days and weeks passed, that changed. We live just far enough away that I can’t just run over to see her whenever I want. So, when the time comes to visit, it’s a special occasion that occupies my thoughts for several days before.

She changes so quickly. On one visit she sleeps most of the day. On the next she’s wide-awake and alert to everything in the room. On the visit after that she smiles when I pick her up and talks back when I make silly sounds to her. She’s developing her personality and it’s a joy to watch it progress.

Occasionally, while I’m working, driving or just relaxing with a book, my mind will slip away to the future. I’ll see myself walking with her in the park while she looks at a flower or chases an indignant squirrel up a tree. I hope that she’s like her mother, a bit of a tomboy who likes to bring home an occasional frog, climb a tree and play catch in the back yard. Knowing her mom and dad, I suspect she will be. It’s in her genes.

I’m looking forward to reading books to her. I didn’t do enough of that when her mother was little. I’m older and a bit wiser now, so I realize what I missed. I want to help her with her homework (assuming my senility holds back) and tease her about her first boyfriend. I want to beam from the fence as she learns to ride a horse and clap embarrassingly as she takes a bow in the school play. I want to watch her go away to college and walk down the wedding aisle on her father’s arm. Lord willing, I’d like to be in the waiting room when she has her first child so that I can watch the cycle start again. I want her life to be perfect. But, I’m not sure that’s the legacy we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren.

I grew up a child of the sixties. Despite Vietnam, the cold war and the civil strife that permeated those years, it was still a time of optimism. To a large extent that optimism was generated by the goal set by John Kennedy on April 20, 1961 to land a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. Our parents overcame incredible technological hurdles and divisive social and international distractions to achieve that goal. It was the one central theme that bound our country together during those years and it was the catalyst for four decades of technological progress.

While we’re still surrounded by problems, anyone would be hard pressed to name a corner of our country, or the world, that hasn’t been positively impacted by the research that occurred in that nine year period of time. Medicine, communications, geology, biology, electronics, materials science, manufacturing, farming, meteorology, physics…the list is endless… have all been geometrically advanced by space research and most of those advances have been serendipitous.

A week ago, the Phoenix successfully landed near the north pole of Mars. For the next few months it will be digging through the ice and sending back data that could answer questions about the origin of life on our planet and, potentially, about the climate problems we now face. Lofty goals and easily worth the price when compared with some of the other money pits and pork barrel projects we now finance.

It wasn’t ten minutes after the landing that comments on the various on-line news sites started being posted which condemned the cost for the space program and even its existence. Reading them in succession was like listening to a broken record. “Wasted money” and “better uses here at home” was the common refrain. I dare you to name one better use, but be prepared to support your position and counter the logical argument that’s coming right back at you.

A brain tumor found by a PET scan, a family saved because Doppler radar gave them an extra ten minute warning of a tornado, a farmer who uses satellite imaging to plan for his crops, a Chinese citizen using the internet to communicate to a world he’d been separated from for sixty years….none of those would be possible without space program related research.  

NASA’s annual budget has hovered around $16B to $18B over the last few years. That seems like a lot of money. But, digest this. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste has identified $271 billion in unnecessary pork barrel projects since 1991. (The 2008 “Pig Book Summary” is here.) Imagine what could have been accomplished if NASA’s budget would have been doubled in that period using just those funds. Imagine what could have been accomplished if NASA had been funded at the same level as the Iraq war.

We’re at a crossroads in history. We can continue to rely on finite global resources, confront world problems using a piecemeal approach and fund scientific research at the current anemic levels. This is a course that will only allow us to meet our problems in a reactionary mode and will likely drive our race slowly towards extinction. As an alternative, we can decide to fund basic research from multiple directions and at levels which insure that effective and continued scientific progress is maintained. This course allows us to find solutions for problems before they become acute and permits mankind to reach out and thrive. I know that it’s a stretch, but I’d like to think that we’re bright enough to pick survival as the better option.

I was reading Ayumi’s yearbook a while back and noticed that her class had a motto. That’s not unusual; most high school classes do. I found hers heartening. They took it from the lyrics of a song by Paul Brandt and their motto is, “Don’t tell me that the sky is the limit when there’s footprints on the moon.”

When I was growing up, I used to dream about the human race breaking the confines of our solar system and traveling to the stars. I was filled with anticipation and an optimism that has stayed with me to this day. But, with space research having lost much of its momentum over forty years, I know that I won’t live to see that dream become a reality. However, if the students in Ayumi’s class get their way, my granddaughter can. In the process of achieving that goal we might just stumble across solutions to the energy crisis, world hunger, global warming, human frailty and a thousand more of the problems that we face. I think that it’s worth the investment. Actually, I don’t see any viable options.

So, when I’m looking at presidential candidates his year, I’m going to be looking at their vision. I don’t want to see their short-term treatments for problem symptoms; I want to see their long-term solutions to the problems themselves. If that vision doesn’t included a major commitment to the space program and basic scientific research then they don’t get my vote. That seems to leave Clinton out of the running for me.  Since I’m leaving her a mess to clean up, I owe that much to Laken.

TD

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