Monday, July 20, 2009

A Message to Reach the Stars

Communicating Our Way to Space
Forty years ago today. I can remember that evening so clearly, sitting at the edge of my parent's bed to get the best view of the TV as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module. Then, with Walter Cronkite's narration, we all witnessed the triumph of the first step on the moon. No VCRs or DVRs, kids. My father put his Bolex camera on a tripod and took 16mm movies of the television tube.

I'm sorry that Cronkite won't see this or any other anniversary of the moon landing. The legendary/iconic/most trusted/uncle-to-all news man will be missed. For other fans of the space program, when it comes to walking on the surface of other worlds, all we'll have is anniversaries for a while.

For the surviving septa and octogenarians who were part of those groundbreaking Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, this is another milestone to lament the long absence of people breaking away from earth orbit. There have been some tremendous milestones in space, of course -- weather and communications satellites, the International Space Station, space telescopes and other astronomical instruments, deep space probes, the Martian rovers. But robotic tracks on Mars are no substitute for human footprints.

What first put us into space, however, was far from these lofty visions. It was the Cold War and the strategic "missile gap" with the USSR. In an opinion piece in Saturday's The New York Times (One Giant Leap to Nowhere), Tom Wolfe wrote that we were successful in winning the space race because we had a clear purpose, a clear rallying cry, a clear message.

He may have a point. We've gone from regaining a military advantage and saving the "American way of life" to... what exactly? We've heard a number messages from NASA, its contractors, space enthusiasts and Congress, including: we need to ensure our global competitiveness, we must continue to map and explore the heavens, some science can be conducted only outside of our atmosphere, it's a moral imperative for the U.S to lead in space, it will sustain thousands of skilled jobs, it will spawn new businesses and products, we need new inspiration to drive us forward and revive our spirit.

Wolfe said that "What NASA needs is the power of the Word" and a "philosopher" to help articulate the rationale for an ongoing commitment to space. The one and only, he said, was Werner von Braun but "NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent." The message von Braun wanted to convey was that we need to find a way to get off the planet -- all of us. He knew that, in its death throws (a few billion years from now), our star will expand and envelope Earth. We would have to get away one day, and not just to potentially habitable Mars. We would have to leave the solar system.

The survival of humanity. This is clearly the most important message one could ever hear but also the least urgent. Maybe in the year 100,002,009 Congress will start appropriating some funds with a few hundred million years to spare! Of course, we might want to act faster. Von Braun, as far as I know, didn't mention the possibility of nuclear war, a collision with an asteroid or comet, or the impact of unchecked climate change.

We need more than messages, of course. Any communicator knows that a message requires proof points -- evidence to support the statement. They must have relevance and be compelling, and instill support if not positive action. They must be coherent, and in a language the public and other stakeholders can understand. And, they must have immediacy. The question of why now must be answered.

Whatever the message and whoever the spokesperson, I hope we get back on a trajectory to the stars.
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