Thursday, June 12, 2008

Because it's what's next...*

I've wanted to get back to the blog lately, but was waiting for something special to talk about. It came in the form of an email from Tom to a couple of his known space nerd friends, telling us that his company was holding a publicity call this Thursday evening with astronaut (A MAN WHO FLEW IN SPACE!) Gene Cernan, to talk about the awesomeness of the new Discovery Channel series, "When We Left Earth."

Of course I'm all over this (as my second astronaut meeting, which I'll happily illustrate with my 11 year younger self), and you can hear the discussion yourself in a few days once it's up on the internets (apologies in advance for my less than stellar performance, due to my short list of questions being answered by Cernan, who spoke in very great detail before I got up to bat, and then BWKP hogging the last question before time ran out). Regardless, it was pretty amazing.

Brief background: Captain Gene Cernan flew on Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 ("I painted that white line in the sky so Neil wouldn't get lost") and Apollo 17, as the last man to set foot on the moon. I thought the call would be mostly about the show, and of course I'm going to have to save up for the DVD (which, I will), but was excited to hear Cernan spend most of the time talking about his experience as an astronaut and his thoughts on the space program's place in history.

He touched on many topics, but he came back to this in everything he talked about: the space program is not just important for the tangible benefits (furthering science and technology, the place it put America in the world in a time of uncertainty), but even greater, for the intangible excitement that we, as a country, as a world, as humans, can achieve incredible, amazing things -- and that it that's spirit that moves us on to the next thing. Even referring back to the Wright brothers, their "biggest contribution wasn't the planes they built, it was the inspiration they passed onto the next generation" to achieve even more.

Though we know the story, it got the space explorer in me buzzing off the ground to hear Cernan set the scene in 1961 (slightly paraphrased because I couldn't get it all down).
Sputnik and Gagarin had just gone into space, and everyone was looking at [America] saying, 'What are you going to do about it?' Soon Alan Shepard went up, and right afterwards JFK said, 'We're going to the moon,' after we'd only seen 16 minutes of spaceflight! And we wouldn't just do it, we'd do it before the end of the decade, and before the other guy! That's the real legacy of Apollo: don't tell me I can't. Give me the motivation and I'll do anything.

Interestingly, Cernan spoke about the presidential candidates positions on the space program, saying, dishearteningly (well, to me, not to him) that Obama has stated he'd slow down the space program over the next decade, instead putting the money into education. Cernan spoke adamantly about money not being the end-all-be-all to "education" in this country, and that if children have nothing to inspire them, why are they going to strive to learn anything? Speaking again of the Apollo program: "Today's candidates need to remember what that did to the American people."

I had a friend at my first job after college, back at the Ohio Statehouse, who was a self-described crunchy liberal. Anytime I talked about space, she used to argue with me that NASA should be wiped off the map, and we should give that money to the NEA instead. Naturally, I want the NEA to be as fully funded as possible, but that argument is asinine. With a little prompting from me (though I was actually joking), BWKP asked Cernan what he thought about people who thought the moon landing was fake, and after a good laugh, Cernan bounced back with the perfect statement: he felt sorry for them. That's how I feel for my old friend, I feel sorry that she gets no joy from the ultimate in human experiences. I mean, jeez, for people to create art, they have to be inspired by something, don't they? Maybe not the moon landing itself, per se, but by human emotions, by our history, by our possible futures, and that's all encompassed by our endeavors to travel outside our safe, snug atmosphere into the unknown of space.

I have just over seven pages of notes from our discussion, but I won't recap it all since they're posting the podcast of it soon enough. I'm incredibly intrigued by the Discovery series though. To make "When We Left Earth," they actually took the original rolls of film in NASA's archives and remastered them with today's technology, so you can see the decades old footage on high def. The series began last Sunday, but will continue for the next two Sundays at 9 p.m.

*I feel like I need to apologize to BWKP for using this as the title, because he is the "owner" of all West Wing quotes ever spoken and he no doubt used it in his post, but even without his provoking I kept thinking of Rob Lowe's monologue from "Galileo" the entire time Cernan was speaking.

P.S. Also, this. Hard. Man, I miss that show.

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