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To the Conquerors of Space
Submitted by Craig Ceely on Sat, 2012-08-25 23:35
That was one major museum I missed, in my two trips to Moscow. And that's really the name of the thing -- we think of the Soviets and all of their works as dull and drab and -- if you've been to Moscow, you'll agree -- but that's the name of the place, and I find it poetic and inspiring. And I'm still sorry I missed it.
The Soviets, of course, put the first object into space, the first mammal into space, and the first man into space. Another of my Moscow regrets: couldn't find Gagarin's spot in their wall of heroes in the Kremlin.
But we have Neil Armstrong.
We no longer have him, of course, Neil having died today at the age of 82. But we really did conquer space, didn't we, not to the extent that Genghis Khan conquered anything, but we left this earth -- we, well, we sent brave souls up and up and out, and brought them back. The Soviets did, and we did. Orbits, space walks, catastrophic errors (Apollo 1 and 13), misjudged landings (we sank one of ours in the Pacific, and one of the Soviet missions landed in such a remote part of Kazakhstan that the crew found themselves wedged in a tree, literally fending off wolves by the time they were rescued) and dramatic photography.
And the moon.
As the World Trade Center was being built in lower Manhattan, and the four Beatles were recording their final album, Abbey Road, as both war and peace raged in and over Vietnam, men in crew cuts and unstylish shirts and ties were using their slide rules and log tables to send Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin to the moon (Aldrin actually carried a six-inch yellow Pickett slide to the surface of the moon itself).
America's astronauts were, in the 1960s, recruited from the ranks of test pilots, many of whom mocked the astronauts for not really flying: "You're riding in a tin can," they'd laugh.
Gagarin and Glenn rode their tin cans 'round the earth. Heroes both. Brave souls. Conquerors of space.
The so-called "space race" of the 1960s turned out to be a farce, of course. As either Mises or Rand could have predicted, the USSR could never keep up with the US efforts in the race to the moon, and they realized that. So they concentrated, instead, on sending unmanned missions to Mars and to Venus (noteworthy in their own right), while the US forged on with the Apollo project: a manned mission to the moon.
And in July of 1969 Michael Collins brought Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin to within firing distance of the lunar surface, and off they went. The first men to touch the surface of the moon landed without injury, without incident. With less computing power than you now have in your cell phone, Collins put them in place, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon itself and sent radio messages from the lunarscape and took photographs of it -- as well as a stunningly beautiful image of our blue earth -- and then returned to Collins' command module -- and, safely, back home.
There's always more to the story, though, isn't there? More than twenty years ago I sat in an office with my boss at the time, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, and we were talking about the space program. "Shepard pissed his pants," said the gunny.
I immediately objected. "Oh, come on! Shepard was an experienced test pilot, he'd trained and trained and trained for this mission, and the flight itself was only fifteen minutes long! There's no way he'd have just gotten that scared at the last minute!"
The gunny looked at me as if I were being an idiot, which, in context, I was. "Sergeant Ceely," he said slowly, "yes, the flight itself was only fifteen minutes long. The mission, though? Shepard sat in that tin can for eight hours. I never said he got scared. How many cups of coffee have you had this morning?"
Eight hours. Okay, I was humbled by that argument. Armstrong and Aldrin only spent two and a half hours on the moon itself. They actually damaged their lunar module when they got back into it, a circuit breaker needed for activating the launch sequence itself. They broke another item -- a pen -- and used that to set the circuit breaker so they could fire up and leave the lunar surface. As they lifted off and flew back to the command module, Collins noted that they flew as straight and direct as if it were an elevator headed right to his ship.
A pen. A pen. Ever wished you had that presence of mind, that kind of calm courage? Armstrong and Aldrin did, a quarter of a million miles away from home.
Again, your cell phone has far, far more computing power than three men relied upon at those moments.
Test pilot, tin can: the man went to the moon. These days, amateur radio operators have bounced signals off the planet Venus and back to the earth -- an astounding achievement, really; it is routine for hams to use satellites to pass signals or even to build such satellites themselves, and to send them into space; and bouncing signals off the moon is a popular part of the hobby. But it's still a big deal that we can put scientific craft on Mars or that India can put an object on the moon, or that we can send craft entirely outside our solar system and still receive signals back from them. And we have. We have done all of those things.
But Neil? You went there and you came back, partner.
The Russians have it right: Conquerors of Space.
And you, Neil, were one of them.
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