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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The New Frontier*

Image from History.com

*Somerset, PA Daily American
July 31, 2010
as "Final Frontier"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

My lifelong, I’ve been a huge devotee of space travel. I grew up riveted by the events of Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I could have recited the crews of every single manned flight the U.S. had undertaken. While there are times I can’t remember the location of my motorcycle key, the night that Armstrong and Aldrin took those historic first steps onto the lunar surface is as sharp and clear today as if it had happened yesterday.

To my young mind, it seemed natural that now that the moon had been reached, Mars would follow soon. But to my sorrow, I watched our space program shrink, put to the torch by narrow-minded political opportunists who seemed to think that cancelling a program largely responsible for a record low 3.7% unemployment rate and volcanic 8.5% economic growth would somehow help poor people. They seemed to forget that a space program not only needs rocket scientists, it also needs secretaries, welders, and janitors, mostly with contractors like North American Rockwell and Boeing. But when the space program effectively departed the marketplace, the economy tanked and unemployment exploded. America’s eyes, once lifted to the stars in triumph, were lowered in pain.

Sorry about that. Even after all these years, it still upsets me.

Finally, in this the 21st century, NASA has laid down a timetable for an ambitious program of exploration, including a permanent base on the Moon, and an eventual manned mission to Mars. But it will be a far more difficult and dangerous path than we ever thought possible.

Since the halcyon days of Apollo, we earthlings have learned a lot about the environment of space. Back then, we thought going to Mars would be no different from going to the Moon, just a longer journey. We also assumed that the climate of Mars would be far more congenial than the Moon, perhaps requiring far less protection for the explorers. Now, thanks to those two remarkable rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, our eyes have been opened.

Earth is protected by a powerful magnetic field. Like the mythical shields that protected the Starship Enterprise, these fields deflect dangerous solar and cosmic radiation from the planet, and from us. Mars has no such magnetic field. Hence, all that radiation, harmful to organic matter (us) floods the Martian surface. Therefore, if explorers are going to survive on the surface of the red planet, they will have to be well-shielded.

Even the journey to Mars poses new hazards. The sheer length of that journey, six months or longer out and six months back, means the astronauts will be dangerously vulnerable to radiation. Also, while gravity has cleared out most of the rocky debris between the planets, there is still enough gravel out there to pose a very real threat to a spacecraft.

These were hazards that, frankly, the man (or in my case, the boy) on the street were ignorant of 40 years ago.

This renewal of human exploration will be dangerous, perhaps the most hazardous effort in the history of the human race. But that is precisely why we must do it. President Kennedy’s historic words that launched us on the path to the Moon are as relevant now as they were on that hot, steamy September day in Houston, 47 years ago:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.

Humanity cannot grow by standing still. We can either continue to fight over every grain of sand on earth, or we can together reach for the stars, not as a nation, but as a human family. By stepping out to the planets and beyond, perhaps we can realize that the universe, in all its vastness is really too big to fight over.

We humans have always been explorers. Let us rise up and together seek our destiny.

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