WeekendCoffee Buzz … and Neil!

apollo11If we were having coffee today I’d be pretty vocal about recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing. I have privately noted the date every year since then.  It is hard to believe it has been fifty years because  I remember the events of Apollo 11 quite vividly.

In fact, I have followed the space program closely since the first flight of Alan Shepherd.  My fourth-grade teacher, Miss McGrath, dated some guy who worked for NASA (I grew up in Houston so he was part of the fledgling Manned Spacecraft Center) and he came in and got us all fired up about the whole thing.  We watched the entire flight of John Glenn on TV in school!  Big deal, you younger folks might think, but in 1962 it was indeed a big deal!

Even from the first days there were complaints about the spending of money on this entire effort.  These complaints continue today.  Improve things on earth first, they say.  I say, look around.  Chances are you’re reading this on a computer or better yet, a tablet or smartphone, based on information that was transmitted over the internet by wire or by wireless communication.  These weren’t just natural progressions in technology.

Look at the 20th Century:  most “advances” were slow, almost cosmetic, and this continued up through the 1960s.  It was after the space program that things really took off.  This is because of the huge investment in technology, which created new industries, and a lot of jobs, along with a lot of new ideas solving problems that people hadn’t even considered before.  This served to make people more interested in pursuing educational goals to advance various fields of engineering, that is, as opposed to more traditional trade pursuits.

All of us have been affected by the amazing advances in electronics, medicine, engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, manufacturing, robotics, heck, I’m running out of fields but there are more — I just can’t remember them all — you can trace all these things back to the initial investments in the lunar landing project.  It wasn’t just an investment in achieving a singular technological triumph, it was an investment in all of us that continues to enrich our lives to this day.  Maybe these things would have eventually happened, but I assure you the progress would have happened at a snail’s pace compared to the way it worked out.

You want a really good example? In May 1977 we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  Think about that.  Yes, air travel had advanced, mostly due to wartime necessity, but that’s pretty much it.  Television?  It existed in concept at the time of Lindbergh but wasn’t even crudely available for another twenty years.  When did things really start to take off?

To the deniers, I have to ask, where is the motivation for such a conspiracy — one that would involve hundreds of thousands of people?  The money?  It really wasn’t that much in comparison to the rest of the Federal budget … remember it was funded piecemeal over a period of years.  It still is.  The thing I hate about the deniers is this: at the core of their denial is that they deny humans are even capable of doing something like this.

Here are some common claims.  No stars in the pictures.  It’s daytime!  There is no atmosphere and no ocean to reflect blue, but it’s daytime and it’s really bright and the cameras must be f-stopped really tight.  I’ll tell you this, if there were stars in the pictures, that would be proof of a fake.  The flag?  It had a spring to make it unfurl.  Hanging limp would have looked really lame.  We weren’t entirely without class in the sixties. The danger of the Van Allen Radiation Belts?  It’s a phenomenon. Really, there’s much more danger from solar wind (which is where the radiation in the belts comes from).  We know about these things … there is layered shielding.  Most of the time you get more radiation from the electric burner on your stove. I saw some guy post once about “how did they take off from the moon without an engine?” … where did he get that?  Of course there was an engine.  Lordy.

In my opinion, two events precipitated these conspiracy theories, both of them were movies.  Star Wars and Capricorn One.  Capricorn One came after Star Wars … it was about a similar sort of conspiracy but involving a Mars landing.  Pretty low budget and forgettable movie but some people didn’t forget and it cemented the merest idea of a conspiracy in their minds.  The other, Star Wars, heralded a technological leap in movie special effects that continues to this day.  Note: before Star Wars, space special effects were pretty darn awful.  You have to think about this in context.  I think a lot of deniers consider the issue through the post-Star Wars special effects revolution, not before.

Yes, people have died.  Space has always been a dangerous endeavor.  So is the freeway and air travel. In times past, people would go off on ocean voyages and disappear without a trace.  Did they stop sailing the ocean? Nope, they built newer and better ships.

You might note that I used Buzz Aldrin’s name first in my title … that was both for aesthetics as well as to give Buzz a big shout out.  We all remember Neil Armstrong first and foremost; he stepped out first, after all.  But you know what?  They landed together; they were a team, and I think they thought of themselves as a team of three.  Success depended on all three of them … including Mike Collins, the man in the tin can up above.  So to all of you, Buzz, Mike, and Neil … thank you for helping us realize what is no doubt the most awesome technological event yet created by our species.  Think of it, yeah, America did this, but more than that … humans did this!  Let’s go back!

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC … find more information about him and his writing at http://thefensk.com
NEWS!  His companion cookbook, The Mossback Cafe Cookbook, is now FREE on Amazon!  Take a look >>> HERE

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Reflections: 15 Years On

columbia1Fifteen years ago today, I was driving south on US 29 in southern Virginia when I spied a bright light moving across the sky.  There were no blinking lights associated with, just a smooth steady motion, very bright, across the sky from West to East.

I knew what it likely was.  No, not a UFO.  I figured it was either the space station or the shuttle Columbia.  I also knew how to verify it, once I could get to a computer.  I had long been a space station watcher, and I knew a website where one could check for possible viewing opportunities.  It included other satellites, but nothing shows up quite like the space station or the shuttle.

I checked the website and found out it was indeed Columbia, well into its second week of a long mission.  It gave me a good feeling to know I had seen it pass because I had a special personal association with the shuttle Columbia.  In 1981 I had driven to Florida to watch the first launch.  It was the culmination of a lifetime fascination with space flight, dating all the way back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight.

Anyway, I didn’t think too much more about it that week.  Until Saturday.  Our son called and said turn on the TV, there was something about the space shuttle.  I was with our daughter Audrey and as the news channel came on a deep pit opened in the bottom of my soul.  “Ooooooo,” I said.

Audrey must have noticed visible shock on my face and asked me what was wrong.

columbia2I pointed at the screen.  “See all those trails in the sky?”

“Yes.”

“That is supposed to be ONE.”

She realized what I was implying and asked, “Can anything be done?”

“No.  It’s over,” I said, “They’re gone.”

It was a horrible tragedy, but space flight had always been dangerous and always will be.  Is it worth it?  As I sit here typing on a device that can trace its widespread use, along with the networking and other technology that make this communication possible, I’d have to say … yes.

In a way,  I always thought the Columbia disaster was even more tragic than the Challenger explosion because these astronauts had a very successful mission up to that point, most of it doing hard science.  And a high percentage of their data had already been transmitted home.  They had completed their jobs and were fifteen minutes from landing.  So close, in fact, that people were at the Florida landing area anxiously waiting for their imminent return.  It just never happened.

On a personal level, with the people and families involved, it’s a tough call, but every single person who flies into space has to accept the risk; they know it is extremely dangerous.  Life is full of such risks.  If we were suddenly whisked away from the nineteenth century and plopped onto the freeway into a car driving seventy miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars … we’d probably drop dead in fear.  And at any moment, even those of us who are used to it should realize that it is extremely dangerous and in a split second, we could suffer the same sort of fate as those astronauts.

I think Alan Shepard explained the astronaut side of it best when he said, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

columbia3Anyway, as we approach the fifteen-year anniversary of the tragedy I’ll be thinking about the Columbia crew and their families.  Tragedies like this make us all stronger and help to make space flight even safer. The shuttle was the most complicated machine ever built.  That we lost three out of five was regrettable, but even more regrettable is the fact that we lost continuity … we should have continued building them, making them better and safer, maybe a new one every four years. At the very least we should have had a replacement vehicle ready long before we retired the fleet.

Now, we are on the cusp of a new era of exploration.  There will no doubt be other tragedies.  Advancement sometimes has a high price.

If you ever want to spot the station flying overhead, you can sign up to get text alerts of when one is coming up.  Sign up here:  https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

I highly recommend it.  You can look up and think, “I belong to a civilization that can do stuff like that!”  When you think about it, in many ways it is as remarkable as building the pyramids.

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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina.  You can find out more about him and his works at http://thefensk.com

Note: his debut novel, THE FEVER, is available for a 25% discount for a limited time.  http://thefensk.com/fever.html