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The sky is, literally, the limit

The previous generation looks up to the stars and have sky as their limit. This generation has put too much focus on Earth and become the prisoner of gravity.

Nicolas Mokhoff – EE Times
(06/22/2009 12:01 AM EDT)

On July 20, 1969, as humans set foot on an astronomical body other than Earth for the first time, millions watched on television sets across the globe. The moment was historic, it was awesome, it was exciting, it was unbelievable!

What have the 40 years since wrought?

As I write this, NASA is readying for its next launch, with seven more targeted for the rest of the year.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) were prepared to launch on Thursday, June 18, with three attempts possible, at 5:12 p.m., 5:22 p.m. and 5:32 p.m. If launch slipped to Friday, June 19, the launch opportunities would be 6:41 p.m., 6:51 p.m. and 7:01 p.m.

Would anyone, I wondered, watch the action on CNN or Fox?

The 2009 mission is no less exciting than 1969’s moon walk. NASA’s Web site explains the technical goals: The LRO is scheduled for a one-year exploration mission at a polar orbit of about 31 miles, the closest any spacecraft has orbited the moon. Its primary objective is to conduct investigations to prepare for future exploration of the moon.

LCROSS will search for water ice on the moon by sending the spent upper-stage Centaur rocket to impact part of a polar crater in permanent shadows. LCROSS will fly into the plume of dust left by the impact and measure the properties before also colliding with the lunar surface.

Coverage of NASA launches is video streamed at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv.

So, it’s all there for us. The communications technology exists for streaming video on a computer screen or broadcasting it via mass-market TV, with high-definition audio, to let us all vicariously participate in the “conquering” of space. But few of us do.

The sad thing is that in an era of prolific technical and scientific discoveries and engineering achievements in space, we tend to fixate on Earth and wonder where we go from here. Bombarded by images of global unrest, numbed by the talking heads dissecting the minutiae of our economic woes, we spend too much time staring at the screen and asking, “what now?” and too little time gazing at the stars and wondering “what if?”

What if our children could be the next explorers of space? What if our sons and daughters could find engineering a rewarding career to pursue?

At a recent MIT symposium celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, the astronaut on the last Apollo (17) module, mentioned that in a survey of 25- to 30-year olds, a large percentage could not relate to or did not believe in the achievements of Apollo 11.

In his talk, Schmitt mused about the famous “Earthrise” photo taken by the Apollo 8 crew from their space module porthole, saying that the shot of Earth rising above the moon’s terrain had “forever changed the way we look at ourselves.” Yet young people have become so desensitized by the constant barrage of images of today that they fail to appreciate the achievements of the past.

There are many reasons why our young are more interested in fame and fortune than in exploration and discovery. But maybe those who witnessed the first moon walk should remind the young more often that the sky is, literally, the limit.

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