Saturday, April 17, 2010

Apollo 13 + 40

Forty years ago today, the Apollo 13 mission came to an end with the safe landing of the command module, Odyssey, in the Pacific Ocean (NASA links: mission overview, interactive feature.)The mission riveted the attention of the world after an oxygen tank explosion 200,000 miles from the planet crippled the craft and threw the three astronauts' very survival into question. The mission, later dubbed a "successful failure" because the astronauts survived despite achieving the original objective of landing on the moon, became an icon of NASA's once-vaunted ability to pull proverbial rabbits out of proverbial hats.

As we've seen in the ensuing decades of budget-castrated human spaceflight programs, fatally flawed management practices and tragic losses that didn't have to happen, NASA's star has clearly faded. In the process, so has the national will to pay for it.

As I write this, Space Shuttle Discovery orbits the planet a mere few hours after undocking from the International Space Station. Her second-to-last mission, STS-131, is scheduled to end Monday morning with a landing at Florida's Shuttle Landing Facility (wiki), after which only three missions remain before the shuttle fleet is grounded for good. Despite President Barack Obama's rather significant speech* Friday calling for renewed focus on beyond-the-moon exploration, the fact remains that there is no post-shuttle U.S. capability to achieve low-earth orbit, and the very core of American human spaceflight knowledge is about to be scattered to the wind.

I got to discuss this very issue with AM640 Toronto radio host John Downs this past Friday (I chat with him live on-air most Fridays from about 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. You can tune in here) and as I did my best to explain why this stuff matters to a mostly uninterested public, I found myself wishing we spent more time focusing on this and less time on Kate Gosselin. Reality television washouts don't inspire our kids. I firmly believe that edge-of-the-envelope scientific achievement, on the other hand, does.

As a Canadian, the current space malaise hits an especially raw nerve. Anyone who was around for Canada's Avro Arrow (CF-105) debacle will understand what it feels like to have world-leading scientific capability destroyed by lack of political leadership and will. The irony that the suddenly-out-of-work Canadian scientists and engineers went on to join NASA's moon program in droves isn't lost on me.

Your turn: What inspires you?

* Additional links:


srp said...

I remember sitting mesmerized by every moment of the first moon landing.... kids today have not experienced that. Space still inspires... that such order exists in chaos.. how could this universe possible have come into being by "chance".

David said...

i am too grumpy to form a coherent response... think I will work on my kayak... and breathe deep of the poly resin epoxy fumes

sage said...

I think its sad that we haven't been back to the moon in decades... I'd like to see a push for Mars, but also back to the moon. I'm amazed and inspired every clear night when I look into the skies.

Ben said...

To me, a bunch of things come into play on this subject. How about the collapse of the "mainstream/elite" media? (Our families no longer huddle around the TV to have Walter Cronkite tell us that we've launched our 119th Space Shuttle...or whatever the number is now.)
And, there's the whole "diminishing return" thing...Quite frankly, even I would be lying if I could accurately cite the earth-shattering discoveries that the program has produced recently.
Simply put, I think many are somewhat bored with the whole thing.