Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Houston, We Have a Problem ...

July 20th was the anniversary of the day, 44 years ago, when man first walked on the moon, and one is left to wonder: Why haven't we been anywhere else?  For that matter, why have we not returned?  I have a couple of thoughts on that, as you might expect ...

One is that I think we've been ruined by Star Trek.  It's a truly raging irony that a show about space exploration and beloved by science and space nerds would, in my opinion, be what killed space exploration, but I think, as special effects have gotten better and the writing has evolved from simple "space opera" (where the location was merely a way to separate the action from everyday life) to something more complicated and elaborate, the general public has lost its desire for and sense of wonder in actually being in space.  Who needs to go to that great expense and, frankly, risk when you can trip on down to the local theater and get it in 3D and Surround Sound?

Sure, you might counter that any number of young people have been inspired to go into the sciences because of Star Trek and its ilk.  The first space shuttle was named Enterprise in honor of the show, but I think there's an apt metaphor or two there.  That shuttle never left the atmosphere (it was used for drop tests to make sure the damn thing actually glided rather than dropping out of the sky like a brick), and the entire shuttle program never left close Earth orbit, as in close Earth orbit.

(As an aside, when I worked as a National Air and Space Museum docent back in the day, a child once asked me if the shuttle could go to the moon.  I was befuddled for a moment; the idea had never occurred to me.  Then I said, well, yes, I suppose it could do it with enough thrust to get there, but that wasn't the point of it.  Then again, maybe there's an apt metaphor too.)

So instead we shoot doughty little robots to Mars, and are oh so proud when they trundle around the surface for longer than planned.  What a brave little machine!  It's so much cheaper than sending humans, and so much less risk, which brings me to another point ...

Have we lost our taste for risk? 

I'm reading a book about the search for the lost oasis of Zerzura.  Long story short: it's the true story (or rather, stories) that formed the basis for The English Patient.  I'm not very far in yet.  It's the 1920s, and Britain, France and Italy are squabbling about who owns northeastern Africa (basically, Egypt, Sudan and Libya, respectively), and where the borders meet is ... well, nothing.  Empty desert and blank space on maps.  There are rumors of any number of oases, which would with proper planning make crossing (and thus mapping) those empty spaces possible, but no one knows where these vital watering spots might be.

The solution then was simple.  A bunch of guys got together (at first French, then Egyptian, then English) and got on their camels and in the cars and headed out into the desert.  That's it.  They actually got into Model T Fords and drove into trackless sand dunes to see what they could find.  And that was the improvement from the whole camel option.  (Cars don't eat and drink; fewer supplies need to be carried.)

All through history, from Darwin heading out on the Beagle to the great Fridtjof Nansen (Wikipedia's straight bio of him is impressive, but this one -- describing him as the "Badass of the Week" -- gets more to the point), sometimes with government money and sometimes with their own, people would go out to test scientific theories or fill in blank spaces on the map or just go because it hadn't been done.  Where are these people now?

"Badass" Fridtjof Nansen
from Wikimedia Commons
 Star Trek regularly interrupts the action to have one of the noble leads explain to some befuddled and troublesome alien (usually one that has somehow tortured, tested or imprisoned all or part of the Enterprise crew) that humans are by nature explorers, and though it is dangerous and sometimes even difficult to find the benefit, we keep insisting on going out there because we just want to know.  Well, maybe not so much right now ... unless shipping out a cut-rate robot to conduct whatever experiments we can afford counts.  Are we that afraid of losing people or spending money, government or private?

Take me to your leader ...
or whoever I can afford to see.

Is it really that we have become so risk-averse and comfortable that we are not just unwilling to die ourselves, but unwilling to have anyone perish doing something as intangible as going out there?  You know, There, beyond the here we've already been to before?  Why is it that, when one plan to colonize Mars involves simply shooting people up there to stay, is generally met with amusement?  Is that how the early colonists of the Western Hemisphere were received?

It just strikes me lately that we're willing to listen to Jean Luc Picard speechify about the nobility of reaching out to the stars while enjoying the pseudo-reality of CGI nebulae flashing by, but we're not ealy ready to give up that second latte to see if the special effects guys were right ...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Still Dead ...

In the earliest days of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase wrote and presented the mock newscast, "Weekend Update."  This was the mid-70s, and Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco had only recently died after a half-century of rule.  He was a central figure in World War II and much of international politics thereafter, so his death brought the expected media frenzy.  Chase, mocking this, would announce each night that Francisco Franco was "still dead."

Recently, actor James Gandolfini unexpectedly died at 51.  In keeping with my recent post on what people did at my age (52), and the Tom Lehrer joke I opened with ("When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years"), lets see who went before my time.

As I noted in the post, Czar Nicholas II met up with Bolshevik bullets at 50.  Lenin made it to 54, as an aside, but that puts him out of the running here.

The youngest elected President, John Kennedy, was killed by only two of Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets at the age of 46.  Oswald, shot some days later, was 24.  Also killed in that period (stunning to look back at the chaos of it now): Martin Luther King, Jr., 39, and Robert Kennedy, 43.

Let's see, speaking of chaos and violence, John Dillinger was 31 when shot by FBI agents outside the Biograph movie theater in Chicago after watching "Manhattan Melodrama."  To this day, in the simulated town where FBI agents train in Quantico, Virginia, the theater marquee announces that movie.

Bonnie and Clyde were in their 20s when killed in Texas.  Lester "Baby Face" Nelson was killed at 25.  Al Capone died at 48.  Odd, I thought he had lived to old age, but syphilis and other health problems did him in after he served his time in Alcatraz.  

Legendary war photographer (though he did his share of Hollywood stories, nearly marrying Ingrid Bergman in the process) Robert Capa was only 40 when he stepped on a landmine in Viet Nam in 1954, and his colleague David "Chim" Seymour, who died two years later in the Middle East, was 45.  Larry Burrows, another great war photographer, died at 44 when his helicopter crashed into Laos.  With him were AP's Henri Huet, 43, Kent Potter of UPI, 23, and Keisaburo Shimamoto, 34, a freelancer for Newsweek.  

However, photographers (to my intense relief) seem to live longish lives: Mathew Brady was around 74 (they're not too solid on his birth year), Alexander Gardner was 61, Richard Avedon was 81 when he died in 2004 and  Irving Penn was 92.  LIFE's Alfred Eisenstadt was 96, W. Eugene Smith was 60 and Robert's brother Cornell Capa was 90, and Margaret Bourke-White was 67 when she passed from Parkinson's.  Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great street photographer, was 95 in the end.  But we're getting off the point.

Shakespeare (if he existed) was 52 at death, just on the mark, though Christopher Marlowe, who some think actually wrote the plays, was only 29 when stabbed to death in a pub.  King Henry V of England (who gave the great St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's play about him) was only 36, while the villainous Richard III died at 33, willing to trade his kingdom for a horse.  (Ironically, his remains have since been found beneath a parking lot near the old battlefield where he died.)  The last King, George VI, was 57 when he died in 1952.  His successor, Elizabeth II, remains healthy at 87.

John Lennon was only 40 when shot by Mark David Chapman in 1980 (again, I thought him older, but then I was only 19 when it happened).  And though "Woody" Guthrie was 55 when he succumbed to ALS, Lou Gehrig -- the man who's name is generally associated with the disease -- was only 37 at death.  Beethoven made it to 57, Bach to 65, and Mozart, by the way, was 35 when he died from a fever, not poisoning.  (Sorry, fans of "Amadeus.") Tom Lehrer is still alive, and has a website.  He's 85.

Oh, and Francisco Franco (still dead) was 83.