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Friday, February 1, 2013

America Has Stopped Dreaming (No Longer the "Home of the Brave")

Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White, Roger B. Chaffee, Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, S. Christa McAuliffe, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, IIam Roman.

These seventeen (17) names are the forgotten heroes of America.  The brave men and women on this list were not soldiers (though some had served in the Armed Forces), thus their legacy has nothing to do with war or dying in battle.  They never stormed a beachhead or secured a strategic hill; they never triumphantly lead a force into combat or eliminated some foreign threat.  Yet with all of that being said, these seventeen souls are the greatest of human heroes. Why?  Because they dared to venture into the unknown for nothing more than the quest for greater knowledge and further exploration. And while the soldiers of war are certainly deserving of the honor they have dearly earned, these seventeen soldiers of curiosity, whose battlefield lies in the stars and whose enemy is the ignorant, dared to escape the bonds of Earth to dance with the gods on a stage far greater than anything our puny little planet has to offer, thus making them, in my opinion, the greatest of heroes. 

For over 50 years, one organization has done more to wage this war for greater knowledge and exploration than any other in human history.  Founded in 1958, NASA has given America (and the world at large) more opportunities for growth, more avenues for progress and more desires to dream that big dream than any other organization in the history of our species.  And throughout its history, brave men and women have answered the call to breach our earthly atmosphere and to reach for the stars, and today provides us all with an opportunity to say thanks.

Ten years ago today, the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed while attempting to return to Earth, claiming the lives of seven brave astronauts.  And though this day belongs primarily with their memory, I believe that this occasion also affords us the chance to recognize the sacrifice of all seventeen brave NASA astronauts who have died in the ultimate line of duty: the quest for greater human knowledge.  The Apollo I, STS-51L (Challenger) and STS-107 (Columbia) missions all serve to remind us that our greatest possible quest, the human pursuit to explore, comes, at times, at a very high cost.

Ironically enough, all three NASA tragedies occurred on roughly the same dates (they are separated by 6 days on the calendar), so it's only natural for us to remember all of them when we honor one of them. Twenty-seven years ago (January 28, 1986) the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff, while forty-six years ago (January 27, 1967), the astronauts of the Apollo I mission were burned to death in a cabin fire during a routine launch pad test.  These two national tragedies, along with the Columbia disaster which we mark today, are hallowed anniversaries that should compel us to reflect upon that which we hold most dear.  The natural human drive to explore, expand and soak in all the knowledge that we can is, by far, the single greatest characteristic that separates humans from all other known living things.  We aspire.  We dream of the impossible.  We fantasize about becoming more than we are.  In the words of Mark Twain, we humans dare to "Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in [our] sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." 

But sadly, this dream is dying a quick and painful death.  The drive to continue our exploration of the heavens is running out of fuel faster than a rocket during liftoff.  The public, by and large, has grown ignorant of the immensity of the challenge before us and has erroneously regarded space travel as "routine."  This, coupled with the fact that incompetent leaders have lost sight of the vitality of space exploration to the human race, has mothballed NASA and placed its agenda on the back burner.  Too often we hear national leaders and ignorant citizens foolishly proclaim that we have "nothing more to explore" or that there is "nothing out there worth our while" or that "other pressing matters take precedence."  These idiotic statements, along with many others like them, would be laughable if the implications weren't so tragic.  Space exploration is, without question, the most important, most galvanizing, most essential endeavor that we can hope to embark upon.  There is absolutely zero justification for us to simply discard or downgrade the space program.  As Gene Krantz, the former flight director for NASA during the Apollo program stated:
We have the young people, we have the talent, we have the imagination, we have the technology.  But I don't believe we have the leadership and the willingness to accept risk, to achieve goals.  I believe we need a long-term national commitment to explore the universe.  And I believe this is an essential investment in the future of our nation.
No financial crisis, no global pandemic, no natural disaster, however severe, can serve to justify our wanton disregard for humanity's greatest challenge and adventure.

But that is EXACTLY what we have done.  We have allowed economic pressures, global fears and partisan political paranoia to derail us from what is absolutely essential to our survival, and yes, space exploration is absolutely essential to our survival.  I say that not because of the fact that eventually our species will be forced to migrate to another world, but because space exploration lies at the very heart of human exceptionalism.  If we truly hope to become more than we are we must push ourselves towards the horizon.  Space exploration is vital because of what it brings out in us as a society.  It forces humanity to look past the pettiness of so much that we esteem to be of "value" in this world.  It affords us the chance to discover new scientific, technological and medical breakthroughs.  It inoculates our culture from becoming too complacent and too lazy.  It makes us dream bigger, work harder, and think deeper.  In short, space exploration is the "hard thing" that will make us all stronger.  In the words of Kirk, Spock and Picard, space truly has become "the final frontier." 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that all of this is achievable without sending rockets and astronauts into space and you may be right...to a point.  I suppose we could achieve much of this without landing a man on the moon or venturing to Mars and beyond but I maintain that NOTHING has forced us to dream bigger, think deeper or work harder than NASA and the manned space program.  As a result, there is no more efficient manner in which we could improve conditions than by continuing to push the envelope of space.  Yes, more astronauts will die and more multi-million dollar space vehicles will be destroyed, but the ends more than justify the means.

Consider for a moment what the Apollo program gave humanity.  Aside from bringing home moon rocks and cool pictures, the Apollo astronauts (and NASA as a whole) gave society some very practical and important innovations such as:
Memory foam, freeze-dried food, hand vacuums, CAT scans, MRI scans, cordless power tools, ear thermometers, huge improvements in insulation, satellite television, GPS navigation, shoe insoles, scratch resistant lenses, smoke detectors, improved water filtration, fire resistant suits, solar panels, pacemakers, improved and simplified kidney dialysis, athletic equipment, physical therapy, cochlear implants, LED technology, artificial limbs, anti-icing for aircraft, radial tires, enriched baby food, powdered lubricants, Velcro, AED heart resuscitation, invisible braces and Tang!
And this doesn't even take into account all of the innovations that the Apollo program brought to computers.  Everything from smaller and more reliable components to the development of micro-chip processors, digital watches, fibre optics, flat screen televisions (eventually), video games and much more can be directly linked to the great space race of the 1960s...that's right...the 1960s!!!  One can only imagine what we could have achieved by now had we not simply chosen to give up on serious space exploration.  For too long we have been content with doing circles around our own globe and putting satellites into space (which is all fine and good) when we could have been venturing out much deeper into the infinitude of space.  By now Mars should even be in our rear view mirror.  Pathetic that we haven't done more, isn't it! If there is a God in heaven, he must surely be disgusted with the fact that we have settled for the scraps when we could have had the stars.

But all of these technological advances pale in comparison to what the space program has done for American culture.  The Apollo program not only gave birth to the next generation of scientists, but it also redefined American culture.  In the following lecture, Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson illustrates, in great detail, just how dramatic the space program was on American culture, in ways most people don't even realize:



Too often we hear partisan political hacks on both sides complain about the erosion of American culture taking place before our very eyes.  And though their assessment of the situation is accurate, their solutions for the problem are bogus.  Having been hampered by the near-sighted vision of partisan bigotry, their remedies almost always consist of petitions for society to adhere to the narrow and one-sided view of their respective political leanings.  In other words, as long as society accepts the tenants of their particular dogma all will be right with the world.  But these proposals, unfortunately, fail to address the larger picture.  American (and world) culture is eroding not because of political strife or religious apathy; it is eroding because we no longer dream the impossible dream.

Sure, we still have collective dreams as a society, but more times than not, those dreams consist of narcissistic ambitions based on the meaningless acquisition of personal wealth.  We dream of "striking it big" by picking the right combination of numbers in the Lotto or winning a huge lawsuit.  We define success as getting that job promotion or creating the next "big idea" that guarantees us a huge pay day.  And though these dreams are, for the most part, acceptable, not a one is capable of delivering us the desired cultural change we seek. 

The problem is that the "American Dream" is a self-serving dream.  Sure, a white picket fence and a stable job is great and is a noble thing to work for, but it doesn't bring about cultural change.  To truly change a culture we must shift our paradigm of thinking.  We must dream the impossible dream.  And I'm not talking about the impossible dream of becoming the next NFL or NBA star, or of becoming the next winner of American Idol or Next Top Model.  I'm talking about those big dreams that come to us all as we gaze up at the night sky.  Is it any wonder why so many children want to become astronauts or fantasize about traveling to new worlds?  This isn't just science fiction taking over their minds.  It is pure, raw, undisturbed imagination at work.  The dream that we can shoot for the stars.  This is what we need in order to change our culture. The LeBron James', Kim Kardaishian's and even the Barack Obama's and/or Ronald Reagan's of the world can only do so much.  It takes a Neil Armstrong or a Christopher Columbus to truly expand our collective world view.

But the fact of the matter is that nobody wants to make the necessary change because we are now a culture that is based on fear.  The collective paranoia of the masses has created a society that cannot embrace the needed change because we are too frightened by our own shadow.  And I'm not just talking about a fear of terrorists or plots to destroy our democracy.  The fear I speak of is far more subtle.  It is the fear of letting go and embracing the unknown.  Like the starving man who frantically scavenges for the scraps under the table, thus missing the feast above him, we as a culture cling to our iPod, cell phone, On Demand, flat screen, GPS society without realizing that we could have something even greater.  Our frantic paranoia prevents us from embracing the unknown, which then reinforces the fear factor. 

We are no longer the "Home of the Brave."

We are the home of the complacent.  The lazy.  The self-serving.  The comfortable.  But certainly NOT the "Home of the Brave."  And yes, it takes much more than valiant soldiers and mighty armies to be considered a truly brave society. We've convinced ourselves that the pointless political and social matters that we obsess over today actually reveal our valor when in fact they reveal our cowardice, unwillingness to embrace the unknown and our lack of resolve to make any actual change in the way we perceive the world. There is nothing brave about our collective rejection of dreaming the big dream. 

Case in point: as the clocks turned to February 1st, the top stories on all the major news websites were:

On MSN: Joe Biden on how new gun laws won't stop shootings, how service animals help the elderly, Kim Kardashian's pregnant belly starting to show, Beyonce admitting to lip-syncing at the Inauguration, the NFL union chief ranting about concussions in football and underwater explorers discovering a giant squid.

CNN featured leading articles on an X-Games snowmobiler who had died, and more drama about guns.

Fox News: More gun crap, an article on Obamacare, and a deadly explosion in Mexico.

In fact, not a SINGLE MAJOR NEWS OUTLET featured any leading story about the Columbia anniversary!

This is an obscenity!  The collective lack of recognition for humanity's greatest achievement and most daunting quest, that being manned space flight, reveals just how warped we have truly become.  We insult the memory of the crew of STS-107 (Columbia), along with all the others who have died for the cause of exploration by essentially blotting them from our collective memory and discourse.  We have belittled their contributions to little more than a "special interest" or a novelty act. 

But make no mistake, NASA and the manned space program is no special interest.  In fact, it should be our MAIN interest.  All other concerns and priorities pale in comparison.  What could possibly be more important than exploring God's playground?  We can either use our resources to uncover the mysteries of this tiny and relatively insignificant blue rock or we can use them to reveal the wonder of the cosmos.

How much would you be willing to pay for the universe?

As we remember the seven brave astronauts who perished on board Columbia, along with the ten others who died during other missions, let us recognize the fact that our ability to dream the big dream is what truly makes humanity special.  Without it we might as well return to our caves and draw stick figures on the walls.  If the legacies of Apollo I, STS-51L and STS-107 teach us anything it is that mankind can achieve just about anything it sets its mind to...so long as we dream big and act brave.  As Christopher Columbus stated:
You cannot discover a new world unless you first have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
Thank you, brave astronauts for revealing to us the true nature of humanity and the correct perspective we should all embrace!

A brief video tribute to the seventeen brave astronauts of Apollo I, Challenger and Columbia:

Neil Degrasse Tyson on the importance of space exploration:


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