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A Country without Dreams

By David Glenn Cox

It is September the 12th, 1962; President John F. Kennedy is speaking at Rice University:

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. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.

He speaks of new knowledge and new rights and warns us, technology has no conscience. Kennedy was both idealistic and cynical all at the same time; here is a President who sees the future. A President fearing if we don’t, someone else will. A President who is committing his nation to the peaceful exploration of outer space with the most outrageous and expensive science program, ever imagined.

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, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The moon was Kennedy’s legacy after his blood spilled out on Dallas street. We might not have gone to the moon otherwise. But as a small boy, this was my generation and my legacy too. I sat cross-legged in front of a grainy black and white television, watching as John Glenn orbited the earth. It began in the morning and was over by lunch. Just putting a man in orbit prompted a national rejoicing. The United States could do that. We could do anything; we could put a man on the moon, because as a nation, we believed that we could.

The space missions becoming longer and more complicated answering the questions that couldn’t be answered with a computer or a slide ruler. Could men work in space? Could they live in space? Could two space craft rendezvous and dock in space? Each problem met and each challenge solved, one by one. Space walks, long duration flights and not just testing the men, but testing the hardware. A Gemini 8 a thruster stuck pitching the craft into an accelerating roll. Pilot Neil Armstrong, undocked the ship and maneuvered for an emergency re-entry. This was the cutting edge, if you couldn’t dock, you couldn’t go to the moon, if you couldn’t handle an emergency, you had no business even trying.

The crew of Apollo One was performing a dry run through of the first orbital flight on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy, when a spark ignited the pure oxygen environment, killing the three astronauts before the hatch could be opened. Everything stopped! It was “go fever” corners cut for the sake of meeting Kennedy’s time line. If the Apollo One fire had occurred in space, we never would have known what had happened. The program would have been halted, maybe forever. Inadvertently the death of three astronauts had saved the program. The space craft was redesigned, the wiring changed, the atmosphere inside the craft was changed. Not content just to meet the challenge of landing men on the moon, NASA accepted the challenge of starting again, of doing it better and safer than before.

The Apollo 8 mission marked the first time in human history we left Earth orbit. Left Earth in the most complicated machine ever devised by human intelligence. The space craft traveled 240,000 miles entering lunar orbit only to discover…Earth. “Earthrise” a photo taken of our blue world rising over the lunar landscape was published on the front page of every newspaper on the planet. For just an instant, all humanity could see itself in the mirror, stunned by its own reflection. The courage, the brains and technology to accomplish this feat, makes Ferdinand Magellan’s journey around the world, a walk in the park. It makes Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic a joke, child’s play, John Glenn’s orbital flight, nothing more than baby steps.

The futuristic science fiction writer, Jules Vern, had correctly predicted much about a journey to the moon, but there was one aspect that he missed. He never dared dream we would watch the journey on television.  Apollo 13 taught us not to take space travel for granted, we were on the knife-edge of technology, one mistake from disaster. This mindset, this is where American exceptionalism came from, Americans didn’t just go to the moon to grab a few rocks and come home. We took along an electric car in a spacecraft powered by fuel cells and broadcast a live television feed to the whole world. The lunar module was the first cell phone tower; the scientific packages left behind were powered by solar cells.

Primitive onboard computers struggled to keep up, but this is where it all began. Your PC or laptop or tablet, began as a contract from NASA let out in 1963, for a computer weighing less than 20 pounds and many thought it couldn’t be done. Then as now, the space program has had it detractors, the usual suspects, complaining about the price. It cost the US twenty billion dollars to put men on the moon and all we got in return was computer technology, satellite technology, cell phone technology and more knowledge of the universe gathered in fifty years than had been gathered in the previous ten thousand.

Today, some people claim we never went to the moon, it was all a hoax. I would wager they weren’t alive when it occurred. They look back at the US of the 1960’s without understanding, that the US today is very different from back then. Pardon the pun, but they see the moon missions in a vacuum, without understanding the ten-year process of getting there. I met a woman once, who was one hundred years old. I asked her about the first time she saw an airplane, she answered, the whole town turned out to see it fly over and crowds would gather to see automobiles. You can’t fly on a Dreamliner and understand what Lindbergh meant. You can’t drive a Tesla and understand the significance a Model T Ford or a Mercury space capsule, or the wild adulation over three orbits of Earth.

Even more so, it seems we’ve lost Kennedy’s dream:

Our cars are built in Mexico, Japan or Korea; our consumer goods in China. Our cities are in ruins, our economy in turmoil. It isn’t surprising really, that today’s children cannot understand our past, a time when America could do anything. Eugene Cernan was the last American on the moon and as he prepared to leave the surface he said the following almost exactly ten years after John Kennedy’s speech at Rice University:

As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.

This September the 11th will mark thirteen years of war, violence and killing. Of fighting endless resource wars, against a faceless enemy, who always seems to have plenty of new recruits and weapons. Maybe they hate our freedom or maybe they hate our being in their country. My childhood saw an America building and creating the future, the children of today see war, poverty and destruction, of leaders without vision. A spider caught in its own web, glorifying billionaires and gangsters. Using the technology of genius for auto-tune, Internet porn and Angry Birds. We have become a country without dreams, because as Kennedy warned, technology has no conscience.

Cross posted from A Life Ahead

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David Cox

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