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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Final Frontier

It's hard to believe that the US manned space program began 50 years ago - and reached its peak only ten years later. It's been downhill ever since.

In 1969, NASA did something that was almost impossible - it sent three men to the moon, landed and recovered two of them, and brought them safely back to Earth.

Then they did it again. And then four more times (not counting the aborted Apollo 13, which nevertheless returned with crew alive).

In 1972 it was over. The cell phone was far over the horizon, and Steve Job's Apple 2 still a few years off. The Internet? Uh...no. All of what NASA accomplished was done with 1950s and early 1960s technology.

And then the story went south. In the aftermath of Vietnam, egged on by idiotic academic eggheads and reporters whose celebrity raised them to the status of oracles, the US collectively hung its head in shame.

We abandoned the high frontier, and chose to concentrate on using the Space Shuttle to do things that could be done better and cheaper by unmanned rockets - launch satellites. The story of space became that of a trucking company., You call, we haul.

The fuel for the space program slowly leaked away. That fuel is imagination and passion, and after the first couple of shuttle flights, it was gone. I mean, think about it...Apollo was a Greek god, the messenger. The Space Shuttle was reminiscent of the New York-DC airline shuttle...crowded, bad seats, bad moods. Yee-ha.

What would have happened if we'd kept our courage? We can't know. Would we have gone to Mars? Maybe, but it was a huge step beyond the moon, and we probably would have lost some astronauts in the attempt. It would have cost a LOT.

Moon bases? Undoubtedly. We still would have lost astronauts. And it would have cost a lot, too.

But we lost astronauts, anyway. On Challenger, in 1986, and on Columbia, in 2003. And it still cost a lot.

What would we have gained? Again, it's impossible to know, but we might have had a country where kids looked to the stars, rather than to the next text message on their phone.

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