A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, August 27, 2012

Shoot The Moon

Like every other Baby Boomer, I'll never forget where I was when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. The word "hero" is thrown around loosely these days, but he was the real thing.
Only in the last few years have we found out just how risky that landing was – and how gallantly he overcame them.
But the thing that puts him in the pantheon of America's greatest heroes, from George Washington to every World War II veteran I've ever met, is that after his moment of glory he walked away.
Instead of trading on his celebrity to make a fortune or run for political office, he taught college students and spent the rest of his life quietly enjoying the company of his family and friends.
His heartbroken family issued this statement: "For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."
Having said that, I also feel compelled to point out the painful truth: That the era of manned space exploration, of which he was the greatest exemplar, is over. All the action is now in robotics, like the self-propelled laboratory on wheels called Curiosity that is now exploring Mars.
Manned flights are simply too expensive. You not only have to lift the astronaut into space, you have to send food, water, oxygen, extra clothing, laundry facilities, exercise equipment (to combat the deteriorating effects of weightlessness), heating/air conditioning and, of course, toilets.
But not with robots.
And if worst comes to worst and a disaster occurs – and history teaches that they occur pretty frequently – all you've lost is a robot, not a human being.
Back in the day, there were three reasons for using human astronauts.
First, there were things humans could do that machines couldn't, such as determining which rock should be analyzed further. But today, Curiosity can perform sophisticated on-the-spot scientific experiments that humans can only dream about.
Second, there was the Cold War. For some reason, we got it into our heads that the way to win the hearts and minds of people in the Third World was to build better rockets than the Russians. Only later did we find out that they're more interested in our blue jeans and iPods instead.
Finally, it was thought that the way to get public support for the space program was to give them human astronauts to identify with - exemplified by the motto "No Buck Rogers, no bucks."
The problem was that NASA's public relations department has done its best to make the astronauts as bland as possible. As a result, how many can anyone name today? The only current one I can think of is Mark Kelly, and that's only because he's married to Gabby Giffords.
As for being relatable, who is the most beloved of all the Star Wars characters? Luke? Leia? Han Solo? Obi-Wan Kenobe?
No, it's R2D2! And it isn't even close.
So rest in peace, Neil Armstrong, and thanks for a job extremely well done. But the next time we need someone to do a man's job, let's send a machine.