Monday, August 3, 2009

Other Events Associated With July 20: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous (of Moons and Cheese)

On these pages, we mark 20 July above all as the anniversary of the failed assassination attempt against Hitler. However, it is also the anniversary of the first manned moon landing—this year, the fortieth. The anniversary brought forth a host of resources and documentation.

The New York Times, for example, devoted a special section of the "Science Times" section to the topic.
Most interesting, perhaps, the Kennedy Library created the project, "We Choose the Moon," which allowed individuals to relive the entire moon mission in real time, from launch to splashdown.

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 prevalent tone in the US has been, understandably, justified celebration and less justified boosterism. In Europe, meanwhile, Louis Gallois, CEO of Europe's aerospace firm, EADS, writes in the Spiegel that Europeans need a new vision for their space program (no special pleading there, I'm sure). He's quite right, but the problem is that his vision is old rather than new: although he talks about the Galileo project, new Ariane boosters, and capsules that could undertake and return from interplanetary trips, he ends with "manned spaceflight." As so often, Europe seeks simultaneously to challenge and to imitate the US—and in the process gets things wrong both ways.

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.

Science gadfly Bob Park makes the case more forcefully (some would say: fanatically) and humorously than almost anyone. Among his classic lines here: In response to a question about the "romance" of manned space flight: "There's romance there today. The toilets are backing up. And until you've seen a toilet back up in zero gravity, you don't know what ugly is." Q: "Why don't you think we should put men up there?" A: "Well, what are they going to do?!"
[Blogger system problem; replaced link]

When one thinks of the moon, a joke about cheese is probably obligatory (or used to be; is that still a cultural reference?). And so, I cannot help think about the Wallace and Gromit animations of Nick Park.

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.
The "consternation" arose not from the massive size of the cheese-an-sich, but instead, what it symbolized:
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.
(read the rest)
Voilà: all connected. This is what historians do. (Do not attempt at home.)

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