Welcome to the first edition of Orbital Inclinations.
The title comes from the name of the opinion column that I occassionally contributed to back during the 1980s when I was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and I worked on the student newspaper, the Avion.
Now what does Orbital Inclinations mean? Well, orbital refers to the imaginary plane that something in orbit travels in, and inclination refers to the angle of the orbit in relation to the equator. So, in effect, Orbital Inclinations is a particular plane of thought inclined in a certain direction. And that’s what an opinion piece is all about.
With that introduction, here’s what’s on my mind today, the 50th anniversary of the launch of our first American into Earth orbit.
Senator John Glenn, and his fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, spent the past couple of days here on Florida’s Space Coast to help mark the occasion, including a very nostalgic and inspiring ceremony dedicated to all of the veteran Project Mercury workers, which was held Saturday night in the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Because of my recent illness I still need help getting around, so with the assistance of my friend Dennis McCabe, I was fortunate to be present at the gathering, and as I sat there, surrounded by all the historic rockets and other icons of the past, I couldn’t help but think about the obvious; of how far we have come in space exploration during the past 50 years and about how far we have yet to go.
Back to the Moon, on to Mars, landing on asteroids, visiting other planets – new rockets that provide cheap access to space – commercial ventures that take advantage of what’s out there – and other opportunities that we can’t even begin to imagine right now – all of those possibilities are before us.
And all of it IS possible thanks to the first steps accomplished by the many Project Mercury workers who helped launch that Mercury Atlas flight with Glenn aboard Friendship Seven. That historic event was followed by Project Gemini, then Apollo and achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. Then came Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz and the Shuttle – along with the robotic exploration of the solar system; and weather, communication and navigation satellites in Earth orbit. All of that has filled the past 50 years of spaceflight.
What will the next half century look like?
It’s tough to see and I don’t think the picture we have now is as clear as it could be. That’s because not only do we have a long way to go in terms of exploring the final frontier, we also have a long way to go in convincing the rest of the nation that space exploration still is a worthy dream to pursue, that our investment in space will be paid back many times in benefits that will help us live better lives on Earth.
Unfortunately, even as NASA is pressing forward with plans to involve more commercial spaceflight in its operations and build a new heavy-lift launcher, I’m concerned the wait may be longer than we’d all like, because our future in space is a tough sell right now.
When Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich campaigned on the Space Coast last month, he proposed establishing a permanent colony on the Moon, and people from one end of the political spectrum to the other mocked the idea, made sport of him, and suggested this was proof Newt is a lunatic and out of touch.
I don’t care whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you truly believe that going back to the Moon is a bad idea, and that we should take care of things on Earth before we go back into space in a big way, then I suggest you give up your citizenship in the United States and move somewhere else in the world. You’re holding up the rest of us.
Now if you want to have a discussion about going back to the Moon and throw at me all the usual arguments against spaceflight, I’m ready. My end of the conversation will look something like this:
Why go to back the Moon or any other place in space? For science, for exploration, for inspiration, for learning how to do it, and mostly for all the still-unknown benefits we’ll enjoy right here on Earth. Not to mention to ensure the survival of the human species.
Why go the Moon or Mars? Because it will help us to be healthy, safe and educated right here on Earth.
Why not take care of ourselves on Earth first? Because we can help take care of ourselves here, by going out there. Because the money spent on space is actually spent on Earth. Because this nation CAN afford to do great things like going back to the Moon AND do the other important things a great nation should do.
It was that “can do” spirit that launched John Glenn into the history books 50 years ago today, and it’s that can do spirit that still is alive and well within the space community. It’s time for our presidential candidates, political pundits, late night comedians and the rest of the nation to catch on and allow the rest of us to move forward and do something great again.
The space heroes of the first half-century of human spaceflight did their job and pioneered the path that has given us so much, but these legends who are already written up in the history books tell us we haven’t gone far enough. There are new frontiers to discover, and new heroes to be named. Scott Carpenter wrapped up the ceremony at the KSC Rocket Garden by saying, “we stand here waiting to be outdone.”
I agree. It’s time to outdo what has been done before.