by P.R.Banks

I was watching Apollo 13 yesterday, truely a wonderful movie on a similar par with Robert Reford's work 'Quiz Show'. And because my family & I are astronomy buffs I didn't need to follow the story with complete concentration but could notice the audience reaction more. One reaction in particular caught me by surprise.

Namely the reaction to the announcer talking about the perils of re-entry. The speeds involved, the delicacy of the operation and the fragility of the mechanisms being used to protect the astronauts on their descent back. Have we become blase' to this or did we never care in the first place?

Partially this is my bias speaking. I have always been fascinated by space, what it offers and the vastness of it all. And in a quick fit of unthinking judgment I assume everyone else thinks like I do. Events soon brought to my attention the hastiness of this judgment, but still it amazes me just how differently people can think.

Anyways, I am staring to get distracted again, I was watching the film and being surprised by the audience reaction to it. It just struck me how quickly we become complacent with a new acheivement. The first time, all ears and eyes watch. Second time? Mild interest. Third time, only the buffs are interested anymore.

And we do things for the stupidest of reasons. Take the space program for instance, did we go to space because we wanted to explore? I am not so sure, I think that was the reason for some of us. But the main fuel behind it was national pride. The Russians did it to spite the Americans and steal their thunder, and the moon shots happened because the Americans decided they wanted to do one back on the Russians.

If it hadn't been for that pride I don't think that either side would have sustained the monetary and resource drain that the programs required. Take a look today, America doesn't have any major competition for space any more and NASA withers as people say more and more 'Why are we doing this?'. Personally I'd have thought the answer self evident. Take a look at not just what we learned in space, but what we learned to do to allow us to get there. Teflon, computers, global positioning satellites, physics and a thousand and one other things all owe, either in part or in full, a massive debt to the space programme.

And it was done for national pride.

Anyone would think we would learn from history that anytime we try something new out, we learn. At the very least we learn to not do that again! Often we get kickbacks beyond anything that we expected before we went and tried. But then even in our history we keep doing grand things for very silly reasons. Like the cathedral race on in the middle ages.

Some bright spark decided that the best way to 'give glory to God' is to build big churches. I believe the exact rationale was that the higher the ceiling of the cathedral the closer to heaven the voices of the choir could reach and thus the closer to God they could get. Or some such similar sillyness, the net result was a race on to build taller churches.

France won as I recall. And new techniques in architecture, like the flying buttress, were learned to make it all possible. The end result are some quite intricate and beautiful buildings. Paradoxly created to prove that the believers in one region were the most devout believers of them all, in a religion whose teachings advocate humility. Such a strange reason for it.

I had hoped that we had progressed to a stage where we did things to learn, to add to the sum total of our knowledge and to make our pool of experience that much wider. Instead of this fickle by chance scheme that means developments are only made if pride is at stake.

We should be valueing things like learning and the space program. If we are to solve the messes that we have made for ourselves we need to understand how the Earth works better. (Take what studying Venus has done for the sense of urgency about the greenhouse effect.) We need to understand ourselves better. (And to survive in space we have to understand our physiology and psychology very well.) And we need to recognise that playing a blind crap shoot all the time is gonna fail.

We need that learning to let us make the decisions we face wisely and have an understanding of the consequences of what we do. Some of us have known this to be true for sometime now, so when are we (as a race) gonna grow up and realise it? When are we going to go back into space, in force to make a foothold there and to learn?

When are we going to go back to the Moon?

Philip R. Banks
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