The anniversary of the moon landing has been occasion for much reflection on the fate and future of the space program, a good deal of it fanciful, much of it wrongheaded.
The most obvious truth is that we have by and large failed to capitalize on both the spirit and the practical gains of the space program. Where the opinions divide—or should—is over the course that we should have taken. To be sure, it is an embarrassment that we no longer have large booster rockets capable of carrying a heavy payload far into space (indeed, even the blueprints—though not all design records—for the Saturn V rockets went missing a good many years ago). But the real question is: What would we use those boosters for? We haven't established a permanent moon base in part because (aside from the practical challenges) no one could come up with a compelling intellectual and cost-effective reason to do so. The fixation on manned versus robotic space exploration has arguably been one of the biggest obstacles to learning more about our cosmic environment. As thrilling as the spectacle of early human space voyages was, the fact remains that a good deal of the program was driven by political and other motives that had little to do with the needs of hard science. This is not to say that we should not strive for a Mars mission at some point. In science as in warfare, there are times when there is a need for boots on the ground. But as we have seen all too recently in the military-political realm (does anyone really need to be reminded of this?), one needs to have clear goals and rationales. Ironically, the frustrated desires for manned exploration have prevented us from making full use of the tools that we already have at our disposal or could obtain at far less financial and other cost.
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Fortunately, the 20th has many connotations, and, via the miraculous topic of cheese, we can actually link back to New England history. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities' "Mass Moments" program tells us that, on this date\
in 1801, the Berkshire County town of Cheshire made a 1235-pound ball of cheese and shipped it to Washington, D.C. as a gift for the newly-elected President, Thomas Jefferson, who was a popular figure in western Massachusetts. When news of the "mammoth cheese" reached the eastern part of the state, it caused consternation.
Jefferson had won the presidency by defeating John Adams, Massachusetts' native son. Westerners were more in sympathy with Jefferson's vision of a nation of independent yeoman farmers than they were with the strong central government advocated by Adams and his supporters in the Federalist Party. Cheshire's cheese was a sign of the tensions over ideology, economics, and politics that long divided the state's eastern and western regions.
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