Sunday, November 23, 2008

Breaking News

Scholars! You will never believe who I met last week: astronaut Jack Schmitt, Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 17. I am still breathless from this encounter (literally: I was fighting a bad cold to begin with, and scraping myself out of bed to meet Dr. Schmitt seems to have turned me toward the bronchitis/plague end of the sickness spectrum. But enough complaining).

Dr. Schmitt is friends with University of Tennessee professor of geology Larry Taylor, who invites him here to speak periodically. The two met when they were both geology consultants on early Apollo missions, teaching the astronauts how to gather samples of lunar rocks and dust. NASA then tapped Schmitt to become the first scientist astronaut, and (depending on how you define it*) the last man on the moon. Professor Taylor was kind enough to invite me to meet with Dr. Schmitt one-on-one before his lecture in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. Well, scholars, you can imagine my anticipation. What would you ask a man who had walked on the moon, given the chance? 

*Both Schmitt and Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan can be defined as "the last man on the moon" because Schmitt was the last to set foot on the moon (he was the first off the Lunar Module) and Cernan was the last to leave the lunar surface.

As you can see here, Dr. Schmitt is a delightful man. He seems quite young for his age (born in 1935, but looks like he's in his mid-50s) and was very friendly and open to meeting people (not just me, but everyone who showed up for his talk). He seems to truly enjoy talking about lunar origin theories, possible future landing sites on the moon, the political and technological feasibility of returning to the moon, and his own experience going to the moon— which is a good thing, because he's been talking about these subjects whether he likes it or not probably every day since his mission ended in December 1972.

I tried not to act like a starstruck fangirl, scholars, but it was hard to restrain myself, because—I'm not sure if I've been totally clear on this—Jack Schmitt actually TRAVELED TO THE MOON IN A SPACESHIP and then donned a spacesuit to WALK ON THE SURFACE OF THE MOON. When we shook hands, I fear I may have held on a bit too long, because I was reflecting to myself that his hand, the hand I was at that moment shaking, HAS BEEN ON THE MOON.

I gave Dr. Schmitt a copy of my book, because as you'll recall, scholars, he was mentioned in it by name. Apollo 17, as the last mission of NASA's great golden age, was something of a touchstone in the book—after that flight, there were no more manned missions until 1981 with the first test flight of the space shuttle. In fact, I set Dolores's birthdate as December 11, 1972, specifically to coincide with Apollo 17 for symbolic effect. Anyway, Dr. Schmitt seemed to appreciate the longing that people of my generation feel for the missions of the past, and the promise that seemed to be inherent in Apollo (that promise, of course, has gone unfulfilled (like so many promises made by one generation to the next)).

But what was odd about our conversation was the extent to which our interests in spaceflight almost don't overlap at all. As you know, I started learning about NASA history by way of the Challenger disaster, and my now voluminous (though random and dubiously researched) scope of knowledge centers mostly around the subtopics SPACE SHUTTLE HISTORY, SPACE DISASTERS, CULTURAL IMPLICATIONS OF ABOVE, and GENERAL AESTHETIC AWESOMENESS OF SPACEFLIGHT. This last category encompasses much more material from the Apollo era than from the space shuttle era — going to the moon was simply grander, cooler, more unlikely, and more beautiful, than anything else ever accomplished by humans. Je m'interesse de ├ža. One of the finer examples being this photograph:

You've seen this before. In fact, NASA speculates that this is the most reproduced image in human history. Next time you come across an image of the earth used in an ad, textbook, movie, matchbook etc., look closely for Africa and Antartica in these positions—chances are good that you are seeing the Blue Marble. Dr. Schmitt took this photograph (probably). 

What is fascinating is that Dr. Schmitt does not seem to take the same interest in the GENERAL AESTHETIC AWESOMENESS OF SPACEFLIGHT that I do. He seems to think the point of the Apollo flights was to learn more about the moon. He's not wrong, of course, and it's sensible that he would think this, since he's a geologist and his way in to the Apollo project was as an expert on the moon as a physical object. I thought it was generally accepted that Americans in the sixties supported the Apollo program to the extent that they did not because they wanted to know what the moon was made out of, but because 1) they wanted to beat the Russians and 2) going to the moon was fun and beautiful to watch (keep in mind that 1 and 2 were reversed for many Americans). Neither Dr. Schmitt nor I care a fig about 1, but he seems not to care much about 2 either, and 2 is pretty much where I hang my hat as a space enthusiast.

Of course, we did find some common ground. Dr. Schmitt and I chatted about the possibility of returning to the moon (he has actually written a book on this subject) and what it would take to gather the money and political will necessary. Dr. Schmitt feels (as I do) that government has to play a central role in spaceflight, but there also has to be an incentive for private enterprise to get involved, and Dr. Schmitt believes that helium-3 mining on the moon could offer a new energy source and provide enough incentive for energy companies to invest in travel to the moon to get it. I couldn't help but think back to the outlandish claims of how the space shuttle would "pay for itself" through private enterprise (and the space shuttle was a lot cheaper to operate than a mission to the moon will be), but whatever—if this kind of talk gives politicians the confidence/political cover they need to vote "yes" on a multibillion dollar appropriation for NASA, then that's fine. (In recent weeks, I can't help thinking that if Obama has the guts to bring back a WPA-style big-pending project, a moon shot could be a great mood-lifting jobs-creating component, couldn't it? Who's with me?)

What else? I asked Dr. Schmitt what he thinks about the alarmingly high (and growing) number of young Americans who believe the moon landings were faked (or harbor a significant amount of skepticism). My least intelligent moment in our conversation came right about here: I asked him what he tells people who are skeptical, and he said, in a slightly I'll-say-this-slowly-because-you're obviously-not-too-bright voice, "Well, I just tell them about my personal experience of going to the moon. And if they choose to think I'm a liar, I can't do anything about that." Well, yeah, I guess, that's a good answer. I wish I could use the phrase "my personal experience of going to the moon" in a sentence, don't you? Maybe I'll start trying to work it in.

Dr. Schmitt did agree with me that young people can be forgiven for their credulousness to some extent because, as unlikely at is seems that such a hoax could be perpetrated, it seems even less likely, to people who didn't witness it, that we managed to send human beings to walk on the moon and brought them back safely nearly 40 years ago, especially considering that we are not capable of doing so now. If you are an Occam's razor type person, and ask which one requires more assumptions, you can be forgiven for having trouble choosing. I was surprised that Dr. Schmitt did not seem as frustrated by the hoax credulousness as I am, signaling as it does a dwindling personal connection to these accomplishments on the part of America as a nation (I can become quite patriotic on this topic, scholars). Being a pragmatist, he has his sights set on going back to the moon ASAP and doesn't sit around worrying (as I do, obviously) about the cultural implications of the number of years it's been since we went last time. 

Friday, November 07, 2008

Oh, scholars. It fills me with shame to ponder how long it's been since I've caught up with you.

And so much has happened! The Time It Takes to Blog HQ has officially moved to Tennessee, where, you'll be pleased to know, the Time It Takes family is enjoying more square footage in the family compound, a Krispy Kreme right around the corner, and shorts weather right up through yesterday.

What else? Well, this happened. Scholars, I know this article is supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but am I wrong for thinking it's just as important to have achieved the election a president who is an Intellectual American as  it is to have broken the Nonwhite American barrier? And don't get me started about the non-issue of the non-election of the first Feminine American president.

I've also found it interesting to follow the coverage of Obama's likely NASA policies vs. McCain's... among the spacegeek blogs, a typical assumption seems to be that Obama would "spread NASA's wealth" from manned spaceflight to... I don't know... health care for underprivileged children, or something. Because that's what Obama's fixin to do with everybody's wealth, is spread it. This may be because space geeks tend to be conservatives (or conservatives masquerading as libertarians—you know who you are) so the assumption is that liberals=bad. But ahem, which party was it that produced the President who started it all in 1961, the before-this-decade-is-out President?

As you know, scholars, The Time It Takes to Blog is a nonpartisan blog, but the fact is that not one of the candidates of either party could have achieved the confusing combination of apathy and spendiness produced by the the Bush administration, with their wishy-washy lack of interest in what will replace the space shuttle (a mere 14 months from now!) combined with their kooky manned Moon/Mars plan. So in other words, there's nowhere to go but up. (Get it?) Also: as with so many other things, it's not really up to the President how much money NASA gets or what they do. And historically, having more Democrats in Congress is not always bad for NASA. (Confusingly, lots of Republicans aren't necessarily bad for NASA either).

What else? I've knitted several things and forgotten to take pictures of them. I have a great batch of new writing students. Some space shuttles have launched. 

More soon, I hope...