First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

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Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

Our Alien Moon

For years, scientists have believed that the Moon was caused by a terrible collision between the Earth and a rogue alien planet.  The hypothesis was that the alien planet, called Theia, smashed into the Earth 4.5 million years ago, and the resulting dust and fragments and debris ultimately coalesced to form the Moon.

The theory looked good on the computer simulations and sounded right.  But there was one problem:  there was no physical evidence of the cataclysmic crash.  If Theia had, in fact, collided with Earth and been pulverized, why wouldn’t we find pieces of Theia and its alien geology scattered about like Indian arrowheads?  So scientists refined the theory and concluded that most of Theia ended up forming the Moon.  And they had a way to test the theory — checking out the rocks that the Apollo astronauts gathered from the lunar surface and testing them for signs of their Theianic origin.

Initial tests, however, indicated that the Moon’s geology looked just like the Earth.  It was so perplexing for our scientific friends!  But they kept testing, and now — more than 40 years after the first Moon rocks were retrieved — scientists think they have found traces of Theia.  Some of the lunar rocks show slight differences in their oxygen composition that scientists believe reflect an alien origin, and therefore would be Theia’s fingerprint.

The findings aren’t without controversy, and some scientists argue that the differences are so slight the rocks are still of Earth origin.  Others theorize that the rocks are alien after all, and that scientists were wrong to expect huge differences in planetary composition — a theory that has intriguing implications for the history of our solar system and the possibility that old Earth really isn’t as unique as we once thought.

How Much Would You Pay For Space?

I’ve always wanted to go into space some day.  When I was a kid and Apollo missions were landing on the Moon every few months, that seemed like a real possibility.  Sci-fi features like 2001:  A Space Odyssey forecast that routine commercial travel to the Moon would be available a decade ago.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . and now time seems to be running out.

But perhaps there’s still a chance for 50-something space traveler wannabes like me.  Virgin Galactic is nearing completion of the beautiful, futuristic spaceport shown at left, called the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, in the New Mexico desert.

The company plans on beginning passenger service in 2014.  When the spaceport is operational, would-be astronauts will board a small rocket plane tethered to a mother ship.  When the mother ship reaches a point nine miles above the earth, the rocket plane will be launched, the rocket will be ignited, the passengers will experience 3 gees of force as they zoom through the upper atmosphere until they encounter the blackness of space.  The pilot then will cut the rocket engine and the passengers will experience four minutes of weightlessness and have a chance to enjoy a view so vast they can see the curvature of the Earth.  Then the plane will reenter the atmosphere, hurtle back to Earth, and land on the spaceport’s long runway.

All this will be available to the average Joe — provided the average Joe can pony up $200,000 for the experience.  If I had millions of dollars in the bank, I’d do it.  Because I don’t have that kind of coin, however, I’ll just bide my time and hope that competition brings the price of space down to more manageable levels so that, someday, a codger like me will be able to enjoy the wonders of space.

Banning “Lunatic”

The United States Congress has been working hard on our behalf.  Both the Senate and the House, for example, have now voted to ban the word “lunatic” from federal statutory law.

IMG_0072The stated reason for Congress’ action is that the word “lunatic” is “pejorative.”  The sponsor of the bill effecting the ban says “[f]ederal law should reflect the 21st Century understanding of mental illness and disease.”  Huh?  Sure, “lunatic” obviously traces its roots to the notion that the moon affected mental health, but so what?  “Lunatic” is a perfectly good word that has a well established, commonly accepted definition as synonymous with “insane.”  Are we really going to go through the U.S. Code and strike every word that is rooted in antiquated thoughts, concepts, or science, even if the word has acquired its own established meaning that is perfectly well-suited to the matter at hand and most people don’t have the slightest idea of its unfortunate history?

In the U.S. House of Representatives, only one person — Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert — voted against the legislation to strike “lunatic” from the statute books.  He argues that Congress is wasting time with such measures, when it should be focused on issues like the fiscal cliff, the budget deficit, and the economy, among other things.  I’m with him.  How many times is “lunatic” even used in the U.S. Code?  Is dealing with that issue really important enough to command the attention of our legislators under the circumstances?

Of course, every other member of Congress voted for the measure because it’s just easier to do so and thereby avoid getting ripped for your lack of sensitivity and political correctness.  I suppose you could argue that it was an act of lunacy for Congressman Gohmert to take a stand on the issue.

A Great Loss For Man . . . And Mankind

Neil Armstrong has died.  He was a native Ohioan, a fine fighter pilot, a Korean War veteran, a successful businessman — but he will forever be remembered as the first man to set foot on the Moon.

On July 20, 1969, millions of people around the world watched with hope and anticipation as Armstrong backed down the ladder of the Eagle landing craft, moving slowly in his bulky white space suit adorned with an American flag.  When he finally put his boot print on the lunar surface — and made his famous, crackly statement, “That’s one small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind” — every American felt a huge rush of national pride.

It was a magnificent achievement, and Armstrong’s humble, moving words captured the moment, and the emotions, perfectly.  Those of us who watched that grainy broadcast live will never forget it.  The fact that Armstrong was an Ohioan just made the moment a little sweeter.

Neil Armstrong’s legacy cannot be separated from Apollo 11, its historic lunar landing, and the boot print he left on the Moon’s dusty surface, but he was an interesting, and estimable, person for other reasons.  A private person, Armstrong never tried to cash in on his fame or take advantage of the circumstances that made him the first man on the Moon.  When he returned from the lunar surface he worked for NASA, taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati,  served on corporate boards and investigatory commissions, and spoke out in favor of space exploration — and he did it all without fanfare.

Neil Armstrong was 82.  He will be missed.