Monday, January 30, 2012

Giant Steps Are What You Take

Newt Gingrich knows how to play to an audience, and in the upcoming Florida primary, there is no better group to pander to than the thousand along the Space Coast, home of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. The roll out and roar of the Space Shuttles is now a dim and fading memory, and while commercial payloads and scientific exploration may still find harbor there, the heyday of America's spaceport seems to be behind it. Gingrich stood before them and proclaimed that he would put America back on the Moon, building a lunar colony in only eight years from the time he took office.

Bombast and braggadocio are Gingrich trademarks, and anyone who has any inkling as to what was required to even put Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin's boot-prints on the lunar surface in 1969, would have worked very hard to suppress a guffaw. Even with bits and pieces of previous promises percolating still trough NASA, to go from essentially a cold start to a full-blown lunar colony in eight years is a cup of tea even Jack Kennedy would have not dared to sip from.

Those of us who listened to the brash pronouncement could not also help note the timing, coming as it did during the week of NASA's Remembrance Day, when the space community and the nation pays respects to the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. Their deaths are reminders that even the most noble goals come at a cost, a payment we must be willing to make if we are to continue the tradition of exploration that marks humanity's history.

Many pooh-poohed Gingrich's remarks out of hand, and how can you not? It was just another election-year promise, after all. Strip it, though, of an unreal timeline, unreasonable expectations, and self-indulgence, and the goal is not as absurd as one politician made it. After all, even before the creation of the Saturn V rocket, Werner von Braun had space stations and lunar colonies on his mind. It was his hope that the Moon program at NASA would not become a crazy, flash-in-the-pan leap to beat the Soviet Union, but would instead be a continuous and growing series of step to lead humanity into space. His dream was not realized, with political expediency pushing aside long-range thinking, and he would die a frustrated man.

Plenty of people still miss the point of the exercise. They will go on-and-on about the things undone on Earth, as if we cannot work on more than one thing simultaneously, and as if the technology built to accomplish such a goal would have no application here on the ground. They will go on about the waste of money, even though NASA's budget is a tiny fraction of the money spent on wars, subsidies, legal wrangling, and political campaigns. They will complain about how few will be able to make the journey, as if the Mayflower were comparable to the Queen Elizabeth II. There are a thousand reasons not to invest in a lunar colony, and only one reason why we should, but it is a big reason: survival.

Our home seems a solid, reliable, and vast place, but we are beginning to see that it is not so. Resources that seemed unlimited are approaching their limits. The systems that protect us are breaking down. The weather is slowly changing in ways we could not fathom a hundred years ago. We are only now realizing our total interdependence on even the most insignificant life forms and their by-products. As we look outward, we see a universe filled with not only wonder, but danger. Our planet is not invulnerable, it is not enchanted, it is not incapable of being done harm by any of a myriad of natural forces extant in the great spaces around us. Our species is not immortal, and right now, all our eggs are in the one basket.

Imagine if we could tap the Moon for its mineral resources, its energy, it's pristine conditions, and turn it into the workhorse that supplies us. Imagine no longer filling our skies with pollutants, our water with poisons, and restoring the natural environment to a level where it could support the teeming billions. Certainly this would not happen in fifty or a hundred years, but it will not start at all if we do not take the steps, even the first step. Every giant leap of humanity begins with but a single step, and that first step having already been taken, how long until the next? A virgin world awaits, if we have the willingness and the foresight to go.

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