Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I've been reading Eugene Cernan's Last Man on the Moon, his biography as an astronaut in the Sixties and Seventies... another $2 bargain on the library's book sale table. As I read about the accomplishments of all these young men (in those days, women were not sought or accepted as astronauts), I vacillate between two thoughts:

  • That was an era in which America really accomplished things apart from, or at least in addition to, perpetual warfare;

  • Gawd, what an arrogant, self-preoccupied bunch of bastids those guys were!

Both statements seem to have been true. Take your choice which should be emphasized 40 years later.

AFTERTHOUGHT:  It bothers me greatly that those flyboys truly did not want scientists taken along on missions: in their view, every scientist who flew was a pilot unjustly displaced from the schedule. It seems to me a failure on the part of the pilots to recognize that ultimately, the space program is about science, or it is about nothing. I enjoy a good adventure as much as the next American, but I can't help feeling that if more emphasis had been placed on nonmilitary scientific research, the space program budget might not have been slashed to the point at which a trip to the Moon tomorrow would be simply impossible.


  1. Well said. We need to address the program and make it relevant to improving life on our planet.

  2. Kay, I think the Shuttle program has done far better than the three early space programs at concentrating on science. In some ways, the size of the vehicle itself makes it possible to send people up who know almost nothing about flying anything, people who can concentrate wholly on the scientific mission.

    But in the Mercury program, reasonably enough, only pilots flew, and in the Gemini program, it was also all pilots (arguably reasonably, but I still have problems with that). And in the Apollo program, there was every reason to carry scientists in the late missions, but the pilots objected, thinking they were being displaced by scientists. Even late in the program this argument was being offered, and Cernan was as loud as anyone in his insistence. As I said, space flight is for science or it's for nothing, just a joyride.

  3. The sad, or at least ironic, thing about the whole subject is that the amazing velocity of initial space exploration (around ten years from the first satellite to the first moonlanding) was driven by the Cold War; my ideology is better than yours and I'll prove it. In the end, typical primate alpha-male conflict posturing (I can piss farther than you!) :-) With the advent of detente in the 70s the momentum began to be lost.

    While I'm not at all sad about the end of that ghastly competition it has its major downsides - like the disappearance of the need "free market capitalism" felt to show its social side in the ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the world, which led to the development of the welfare-state, social-market systems in Western Europe.

    If we had kept the momentum, we'd be settling Alpha Centauri by now!

  4. Welcome, Francis! The Cold War seems to have been replaced with what the late great Molly Ivins called "the war on a noun": terrorism can never truly be defeated; indeed, it can scarcely be defined... it is the perfect war for a society intent on establishing upper-class dominance, and our society is exactly that in these troubled times. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a terrifying condition (if for no other reason than that there is always a North Korea somewhere in the mix, a nation with leaders so ideologically driven that they don't care if they set off the final war), but in many ways, which I think I need not detail, a "war on terror" is worse.

    In any case, any use of space driven by the GWOT is less likely to end in our settling Alpha Centauri than to end in our component particles settling straight into the earth. "We will all go together when we go, / All suffused with an incandescent glow, ..." - Tom Lehrer

  5. Afterthought... in fairness, I must change my assessment: Gene Cernan indeed comes around, near the end of his biography, to seeing that scientists are necessary in the program and are capable of being competent astronauts as well.

    My experience with Moon rocks? Well, when I went to one of the museums in DC, the small Moon rock they had had on display for public examination had been stolen, which says a lot (take your choice) about Americans or about all human populations.

  6. "War on a noun" - I love that! The war on terrorism, the war on drugs, etc. Amazing that wars on people are so much easier to win - a sign, perhaps, in a world which is otherwise so obsessed with managerial formulations of concrete goals, performance and results (and can you sing halleluja for TQM?), of the insidious, subversive, often wonderful power of ideas ... :-)



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