Monday, July 20, 2009

From the Earth to the Moon -- and Back

Heroes abound, and should be revered as such, but don't count astronauts among them. We work very hard; we did our jobs to near perfection, but that was what we had hired on to do. In no way did we meet the criterion of the Congressional Medal of Honor: 'above and beyond the call of duty.'~ Michael Collins, command module pilot, Apollo 11

Do I remember where I was on July 20, 1969? You bet your Aunt Fanny's bloomers I do. I was at a friend's house where we huddled around his old TV set watching astronauts land and walk around on the moon.

I've been watching some of these programs over the last few days about the Apollo mission. Some of them have been pretty good, but I do get tired of the many shows that harp on the "primitive" technology available and how fallible all the equipment was and how it's amazing we got there at all.

Well, here's a bulletin for all those young producers: The technology was a quantum leap over what NASA had in 1961 when the project started. Those pitiful little computers were more powerful than anything that had ever been used before. And the people involved were the most remarkable aggregation of genius and determination since the Manhattan Project -- and this time a city didn't have to be vaporized in the process.

Yes, we lost three astronauts, the price of the builders not listening to what the geniuses, in this case the guys who were going to fly the thing, were trying to tell them. When they did, NASA ended up with a flight system could overcome an explosion in a fuel cell and return its crew in tact. The Saturn rocket, which, if you believe the current shows, was just waiting to blow up at any second, is the only U.S. rocket to never have a failure.

Now, we can't keep the toilet working on the ISS.

But, I'm not going to crab about the current space program, because I prefer to remember when we had inspired and dedicated people working toward a concrete goal. Sure, you can argue it was done because of cold-war politics. But it was still a magnificent example of what people can do with a purpose.

Michael Collins, the often forgotten man of Apollo 11, offers a collection of thoughts over at I was stuck by the quote that starts this article. Mr. Collins is making a point lost on so many people. There are brave people doing their jobs everyday, but calling them heroes is devaluing the term. The astronauts came into the program with eyes wide open; this was their job, and they did one hell of a fine piece of work.

I suspect he feels the same way about the way the word "great" is thrown around as well.

He has no use for "celebrity" either, calling it an "empty concept". For a man who journeyed a half million miles through space, he has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

I also like his idea, shared by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, that we should quit piddling around and commit a dedicated mission to reach Mars. We've been to the Moon; going back serves no great purpose. You want a launch pad in space? Build a proper space station and launch from there. Going all the way to the Moon to launch rockets to Mars is absurd.

Collins, by his own admission is a bit of a grumpy old man, as is Buzz Aldrin. But, that astronaut's optimism and drive still sneaks out. In answer to the question, "Don't you have any keen insights?", he says:

"Oh yeah, a whole bunch, but I'm saving them for the 50th.

I'll be looking forward to reading them.

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