Saturday, April 12, 2003

To boldly blog.

This morning I took Lilly to the municipal Easter egg hunt. Which is what it was called — no weasel words to replace “Easter,” I’m glad to report. It took place on a small section of a nearby park’s baseball field. This year, Lilly got to go with the five- and six-year-old group, which took its turn after two waves of smaller kids. Before each horde of children entered the field, plastic eggs were distributed by people throwing them out of boxes. Then a woman with a bullhorn shouted “Go!” and the kids stampeded toward the egg-field. Lilly scoped up her share, and was satisfied.

I have an pleasant early memory of an outdoor Easter egg hunt myself, though the eggs were on a hill toped by a water tower. I was four or five, and the tower itself seemed impossibly tall and fall away, but I found several eggs on the side of the hill. Colored hard-boiled eggs, I think. I don’t believe that hunt was organized along the lines of the Oklahoma land rush, but instead eggs were hidden all around the green, and a smaller number of kids went off the find them.

On Monday I will ask the youngest member of our staff whether she has heard of Yuri Gagarin. I won’t do this to mock Angie (age 23), who is very bright and knows many things. But I suspect the name will mean little to her. It’s just a gauge of the cosmonaut’s passage into obscurity — a place he should never go.

His flight around the Earth was, of course, 42 years ago today. I was a little young then myself; in utero, in fact. So I had to learn about the flight of Vostok 1 after the fact. But I did learn about it, as I think all children should, along with Freedom 7 and Apollo XI and the whole arc of the early space program. It’s backwards that untold thousands, maybe millions, know more about Star Trek space flight and its bogus physics than the real thing.

I will do my best to pass along what I know to Lilly and Ann. Probably this will annoy them.

They will not have the advantage of being precisely the right age to truly appreciate the glory of manned space flight. As I mentioned, I was born just as Russians and Americans had taken to space. I have fragmentary memories of the Gemini program — I’m certain I saw some of the launches on television. But it wasn’t until second grade that my interest lifted off, so to speak.

Sad to say, I have no memory of the magnificent Apollo VIII mission around the Moon in December 1968. But by the time Apollo IX was launched in March 1969, I was paying attention. That was one of the stepping-stone missions, the first test of the lunar module in space, not around the Moon but in Earth orbit. Essentially, the engineers were making sure that the LEM worked. Not many people remember this mission as anything distinct, but I do.

I watched every Apollo launch after that — my favorite remains the nighttime launch of Apollo XVII in late 1972 — plus the coverage of the landings. I also read about the Apollo program, and other space subjects, learning as much as I could at that age. So, for instance, I understood pretty well why the Apollo XIII astronauts were in trouble, a story I followed more closely than any other news story for many years.

If you have a boyhood enthusiasm like that, it never quite goes away. As recently as 2000, I went out of my way to see Cape Canaveral and the NASA complex there. You can make all the rational arguments you want about robotic spacecraft being better than manned missions — I will not be convinced. The Apollo program inoculated me against that timid, utilitarian line of thinking.

We should launch unmanned spacecraft, of course. A lot of them. Manned and unmanned space exploration aren’t mutually exclusive. Also, I’m not convinced that the current Space Shuttle is a particularly cost-effective way to send people into space. But there’s no substitute for sending people into space — human beings who can see and feel and understand a sense of place.


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