Sunday, August 10, 2008

Space Exploration

Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. (See Space Exploration booklist) For some, the early members of the Baby Boom, the emblems of the 1960's were Woodstock, Kent State, JFK's and MLK's assassinations. For others of us that were at the tail end of the baby boom, we were too young to know or ask "Where were you when you heard about Kennedy's assassination?" But we were old enough to see and observe and remember that thrilling culmination of the space program - Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

For us, the late-comers to the decade, the voice of William Shatner as Captain Kirk along with Sputnik and Gemini and Apollo are the emblems of the decade. What was it that so riveted the nation? Of course, historians point out the implicit national challenge created by the Soviets putting Sputnik and then their dogs, Laika and Belka into space - a cold fish slapped in a complacent face. I think part of it was certainly that; a sense of collective national challenge. Part of it was the audacity of the challenge. Part of it was the scientific and engineering challenge. Big equipment, big blasts, lots of flame - what's not to like? Part of it was the excitement of the unknown and the potential of new frontiers. And a big part, I think, perhaps the biggest part, was just that ancient and visceral fascination with that unknown vista that sails above us each night. We try and tame it by watching and naming but it remains a cold, remote mystery; a perpetual challenge to our warm blood and our desire to know. We were a nation of Ulysses' from Tennyson's poem, wanting:
To follow knowledge like a sinking star

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Many of these elements were captured in Kennedy's stirring speech in 1962 at Rice University in Houston, Texas in which he formulated the challenge, justified the effort and re-tasked the space program with a very specific objective. Forty-six years later, the sentiments and cadence of the speech still stirs our emotions.

"We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a state noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds."

". . . it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this state of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward--and so will space."

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

"We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

"Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

That was the positive side of a most turbulent decade. A promise and hope for a better future through effort and courage and science.

Sally recalls her mother and her physicist father rousting her and her two siblings out of bed in the small hours of the morning to watch the landing on the moon on July 20th, 1969. As she recollects it, there they all sat on the sofa in their pajamas, glassy-eyed and dutiful watching the live broadcast of Neil Armstrong. Even at that young age though, there was incipient over-familiarity. For her father, a scientist and former airman in World War II, the full dimensions of both the accomplishment and the promise of the landing were top of mind. For Sally the school child, though, there was a different perspective. "There for a couple of years we were constantly being pulled out of class, the whole school, to watch some rocket launch or another in the assembly hall. It was hard to get excited at one more space event at two o'clock in the morning." A quarter of the way around the world, I was in Libya. I remember seeing the landing but I don't think it can have been live. For one thing my recollection is seeing it in the afternoon and the times don't match. For another, the only TV transmission we received was from Wheelus Air Base, a few miles away and they only transmitted for a few hours in the afternoon and early evening; so it must have been just an extended news report I saw but that did not at all reduce the sense of momentousness and of both a mission being completed and a door being opened up.

In recent years, our family has had the opportunity to visit Huntsville, Alabama where much of the early space program gestated through the fifties. There is a fantastic space museum there as well as, and this is what brought us to Huntsville, a space camp for youngsters. We also have had the opportunity to visit Cape Kennedy, Florida and see the museums as well as the activities of the current space program there. It is still awe inspiring to see the scale of things. On the one hand, the scale of the prototypes and actual space capsules from the early Mercury and Gemini days was relatively small. We saw and were allowed to climb into some of these vehicles. They are not much bigger and a lot more cramped than a Volkswagen Beetle. On the other hand the Saturn V rocket that propels the capsule into space is immense. When standing next to a Saturn V rocket, you immediately get a sense of the magnitude of the effort and begin to comprehend the term macro-engineering. At Cape Kennedy, the kids were particularly taken with the two of those marvels of macro-engineering, the crawlers, Hans and Franz. These crawlers are the vehicles that carry the rockets and space shuttles out from their hangers to the launch sites at fractions of a mile an hour. They are relatively inconspicuous when you see them in some news broadcast because of the magnitude of everything around them. But when you see them on their own and stand next to them and realize that they are about the size of a several story office building on a city block, it suddenly comes into scale.

All of this excitement and challenge and promise and scale of effort and danger were captured in children-s books and stories through the sixties. Model rockets made in-doors were common childhood room decorations among friends. I recall a model of the space ship from the TV series Lost in Space being the first model I ever built and done with the assistance, remarkable patience and engineering precision of my father. Many children extended their activities beyond plastic models and built various forms of rocket or spacecraft in their backyards out of wood and boxes and such. Some went even further. There is a great book by Homer Hickam, October Sky, telling the tale of his and his friends' efforts to build functioning rockets in the small West Virginia coal town of his childhood and how those efforts led not only to various domestic explosions, the destruction of his mother's flower beds and other unanticipated catastrophes but also into a career in the space program. Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff (out-of-print) is another great recollection of the period.

Unfortunately we don't have anything really comparable for our children today. Genetics holds much of the excitement of the space program with regard to its potential but it is hard to get worked up over a race of the petri dishes. The space program does of course continue, but without the unambiguous commitment it once enjoyed; bogged down in justifying its continued existence by breeding flies in space, growing chemical crystals in zero gravity and conducting long term studies on space habitation in anticipation of a mission it is not clear we will undertake. On the other hand, there have been moments of triumph. The slow one of the actual existence of the International Space Station, built piece by piece; the still astonishing photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope, and the recent triumphs on Mars, that burial ground of so many initial sensors and remote roamers.

What are the good books for recapturing that fascination with space, the unbroached frontiers, new science, and the spirit of noble and courageous effort? Well perhaps the very best book is that of the sky at night. I know of no child who can lie beneath the stars on a warm summer night without watching and speculating on what is out there. And if they are lucky, hearing a friend or parent tell of the stories of the constellations and of our first baby-steps into the nearest neighborhoods of space. And, if they are really lucky, seeing the bright speck of a satellite wheeling its way across that celestial highway. And maybe, with their spirit and imagination ignited, they might hear
. . . the thin gnat-voices cry,

Star to faint star, across the sky.

The books we have highlighted below are a mixture of myth, history, fantasy, reference and art. We hope they are the material that will ignite an enthusiasm that lies dormant.

Picture Books

Wait Till the Moon Is Full by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams Recommended

Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey Recommended

The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System by Joanna Cole Suggested

Independent Readers

Freddy and the Space Ship by Walter R. Brooks and illustrated by Kurt Wiese Recommended

Destination Moon by Herge Recommended

Explorers on the Moon by Herge Recommended

Exploring Our Solar System by Sally Ride and Tam O'Shaughnessy Recommended

John Glenn by Michael Burgan and illustrated by Robert S. Brown Suggested

A Child's Introduction to the Night Sky by Michael Driscoll and illustrated by Meredith Hamilton Suggested

Neil Armstrong by Montrew Dunham and illustrated by Meryl Henderson Suggested

The Jumbo Book of Space by Paulette Bourgeois and Cynthia Pratt Nicolson and illustrated by Bill Slavin Suggested

How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space? by William R. Pogue Suggested

Black Holes by Dana Meachen Rau Suggested

Young Adult

2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke Highly Recommended

October Sky by Homer H. Hickam Highly Recommended

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and illustrated by Tom Kidd Highly Recommended

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card Recommended

Dune by Frank Herbert Recommended

Foundation by Isaac Asimov Suggested

Mercury by Ben Bova Suggested

2010 by Arthur C. Clarke Suggested

Contact by Carl Sagan Suggested

The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells Suggested

Entering Space by Robert Zubrin Suggested

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