Monday, July 20, 2009

The Next Frontier: from the moon to saving planet earth

For me, it's hard to imagine it was 40 years ago today that man first set foot on the moon - one of mankind's greatest technological achievements. Anyone under 40 years of age wasn't even born yet when astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, and what have we done since? What has been the next great milestone?

There are many who say that it was a big waste of time and money; a common complaint among terrestrial- and ocean-based scientists who feel they got shortchanged with so many resources being diverted into the heavens. And in many ways they would be right, no argument here.

But going to the moon had the advantage of being a singular goal or achievement that could capture the attention of the general public. As a kid I watched Sea Hunt and the Aquanauts and I also had just about every space model kit ever made. All these avenues of exploration fired our sense of wonder and imagination, but going to the moon had the advantage of a greater sense of focus.

Of course, what propelled it was a political issue - beating the Russians, proving democracy's superiority over communism, and establishing the United States' preeminence in space as a political and military warning to all others. That's what brought in the bucks for Buck Rogers. And there were spin-offs to justify the cost with tremendous advances in aerospace and technology industries that produced everything from better cookware to velcro to freeze-dried ice cream (okay, so they weren't all successes).

But there once was an explorer's ultimate dream, and politics moved it forward, and science expanded its knowledge because of it, and business and the public benefited in many obvious and subtle ways. And then it was over.

So, today commemorates both, one of man's greatest achievements and the start of a downward slide, lost in the wilderness. What can get us back on a new track? What can wrench us away from our self-absorbed, self-centered interests - some of which have been aided by the very technology that the space race generated - and get us on a path towards the next technological milestone? What one thing could test the boundaries of science and technology, motivates us all to move forward as every great culture in the past has, and provide worldwide benefits for generations to come?

Simple: no more fossil fuels.

In essence, we reached the moon on the shoulders of an industrialized society based on a centuries-long dependence on fossil fuels. And the planet and every living thing on it is now paying a very dear price for it. So, what could be a better goal for all of us to set our sights on? Not a "someday" or a "we hope to" but a "let's get it done!" Who will show the leadership to make the declaration and pick a date? Who will have the courage to recognize the cost but be able to show the short-term and long-term benefits? Benefits to industrialized nations, third world nations, the rich and the poor. Alternative energy, cleaner air, less CO2, reduced ocean acidification, less greenhouse effect. Why not?

When President Kennedy made his declaration that we would reach the moon within one decade, there were plenty who grumbled as to why not. They were wrong. Mankind can save its pioneering spirit from extinction and in the process do the same for the planet.

At least on this 40th commemoration, that's what occurred to me.

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