Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Going to the moon.

By this time, 40 years later, it is something that is mostly taken for granted by people. Others might question why we ever did it in the first place. Perhaps it is paid no mind at all by the rest. All irrelevant. It happened.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the United States's Apollo mission landing on the moon. I was just 356 days from existence when it happened. While I'm fine with my current place in life - and the relative years since my birth - it would have been a fascinating event to witness while it was happening. Being a dorky 13 year old in 1969 would've been perfect. Alas, I was beholden to the inimitable Commodore 64™ at that age. Anyway...

It's not a stretch to say that nothing, nothing, as spectacular has ever happened at the hand of man in human history - either before or since.

For a quick perspective : It is amazing to think that we were able to devise, engineer, and execute a plan to fire a rocket into space, with live humans aboard, accurately enough to safely approach and land on the moon (the friggin' moon!). Then have those humans bandy about - walking, buggying, golfing, &c. - upon it for a spell. Then, finally, return them safely back to Earth... all before we had touch-tone telephones. It is nothing short of astounding.

There were plenty of satellites (okay, a few) that had been put in place beforehand. Satellites are different. They're somewhat like kites - tossed up into the galactic 'wind' and set to coast on the underlying currents. In this case, it isn't wind that keeps them afloat. It is gravity. Shoot an object from the plane of the Earth far enough (but not too far) outward and the force of gravity from the massive planet it left will grasp and hold it at arms length, so to speak, in perpetuity*.

Apollo was different. Granted, the Soviet Union managed to get unmanned units to the moon and back. As did the U.S. (I think) However, the Apollo mission had one key element which made it stand, literally, 'head and shoulders' above the rest. Apollo had aboard human beings.

It is an undeniably massive achievement for humankind. This is true whether you agree with space exploration or not.

There's no way for me (right now, anyway) to prove this - but it's likely the sentiment and most frequently asked question from those that don't immediately see the benefit of the research involved in getting people to the moon and back safely is, "Seems a waste of money. What does it do for me?"

I have one word for you : Velcro.

Actually, 'hook and loop' fastening (as it's called now. like the kleenex/tissue thing) was invented in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mastral. Fast forward, after many years of sparing use, it was NASA that eventually shot the fabric securing method into the mainstream.

Seems like a trivial thing. But it's a simple example of how the things NASA uses and/or develops eventually find their way into the everyday lives of citizens. All over the world.

As for me, I probably tend to take things for granted. I won't claim that I'm an active follower of the sciences but I am interested in, and supportive of, the overall endeavor. The good thing is there are now television networks devoted to science or showing science-based programs. No one in 1969 had such good fortune. I watch the programming and it reminds me of how crazy it is - shooting things, people, into space. Looking millions of light-years in the past.

Honestly, I don't always fully understand some of the concepts or technical details. But the ideas on their own are well understood. Like, you can attach a giant can to more cans filled with millions of gallons of rocket fuel and shoot the whole thing to the moon. And you can go with it - and come back !!

Amazing. One small step, no shit...

It's science.

*The force of gravity on satellites eventually decays over time. Like a battery running low - and eventually "dying." At some point, all satellites drop out of orbit, after losing their 'wind', and succumb to the same gravitational force that supported them all their orbiting lives. Much like the kite that hits an air pocket, points earthbound, and nose-dives out of the sky in a flash - satellites come crashing down. Always. Re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere is usually enough to burn them up and destroy them but there have been bits of satellites that have made their way back to the Earth's surface. Skylab, anyone?

NB : this is my own interpretation of the fate of satellites. while I'm sure it's true, I admit my research mainly consists of watching the Science channel, Discovery Channel, and the like, along with a dash of internet searching. Hey, at least it wasn't just completely made up.