Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Letter from California-January 19, 2004

When the President proposed going to the Moon and Mars last week, I couldn’t help but think of the old Mercury and Apollo programs of the 60s and 70s, and as I thought about them, I realized that all the pictures in my head were not of the actual programs, but of movies about the programs. To me, Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in “The Right Stuff”, looks more like John Glenn than the war hero, astronaut, and Senator John Glenn himself. It’s not fair to Glenn, just the first American to orbit the Earth, but that’s the power of movies.

So it makes sense that I should live in Los Angeles, where all these movies are made. Only 10 miles or so from my hometown of Pasadena you will find Universal Studios, where they made the 1995 movie Apollo 13. They’re the people you can blame for the overuse of the phrase “Houston, we have a problem.” On the plus side, though, they made a space movie so good, people thought it was real NASA footage. They actually took Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise and the rest of the crew up in a KC-135 cargo plane and flew in giant dipsy-doodles to create the zero gravity effects. Tom Hanks claims he has logged more weightless hours because of this than many real astronauts. On the other hand, the guy talks to volleyballs for months on end, so trust him at your own risk.

Like many people my age, I have a pretty serious complaint about the space program: dude, where’s my flying car? As a child, I, like many, felt that certainly by the time I had children, I’d be putting their astronaut helmets on them every morning and loading them into the family saucer. Rip-off. No flying or even hovering cars in sight. In fact, apart from dramatically improved safety, comfort, reliability and fuel efficiency, cars have hardly changed at all from when I was piled into the way back of the AMC Matador with my little brother.

At one point, we looked like we were on our way. All the news from Mars right now is exciting, but people often forget that we sent a ship to Mars in 1976. It was called Viking and it landed on Mars and sent back some pictures of rocks. It didn’t have cruise control or leather seats the way Spirit (the current Mars rover) does, but it basically did the same thing. If we had kept going from where we were 28 years ago, I feel sure that some of the spin-off technologies would have us flying around like the Jetsons by now. Instead, we built a small fleet of space U-Hauls and flew around the one planet we have pretty well explored, and that’s no way to get a hovercraft into every garage. Oh, well, we did get the Internet and that was a total surprise.

With the Moon and Mars back on the agenda, though, another group of Californians moves into the spotlight. My friends and neighbors at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory here in Pasadena conceived, designed, built and launched the current Mars missions and if the President’s proposals go through, they’ll be the ones who have to figure out a way to build a base on the Moon and then fly a mission to Mars. That should be easy. All it takes is getting people back up to the surface of the moon the way we did in the 70s. There’s more computing power in the average coffee maker now than all of NASA had then. How hard could it be?

Of course, it wouldn’t be enough just to get people back to the Moon to scoop rocks, plant an Old Glory and hit some golf balls for a little while like back then. They’d need to stay long enough to build a base. That takes food and water, of which on the moon there is none, so it would have to be shipped in regularly. They’d also need to get a nuclear reactor up and running since that’s the only kind of power you could count on up there. Then, once the Moon base is up and running, they’ll need to find a way to assemble and launch rockets from there. These rockets are going to be flying for almost a year to Mars, and if people are going to be on them, they’re going to have to eat, drink and do all the other thing people do. When they land, they’ll need to breathe, move around, and of course, get back to either the earth or the Moon.

Here’s the thing, though. We can do it and we should. Back in the 60s, President Kennedy suggested there were two equally important reasons for us to commit to going into space: first, national prestige. If there’s going to be a flag planted on Mars, I sure want it to have 13 stripes and 50 stars on it. Second, and I think more powerfully, we should work to develop the capability to operate in space for as yet unforeseen purposes. For me, those reasons still hold.

Someday you can stop and consider this moment in 2004 when you thought about what it would take to get back to the Moon and then on to Mars and chuckled. It’s probably about how it felt when people thought about sailing across the Atlantic to find India 500 years ago or when they thought about building flying machines. They probably felt the same way when they dreamed that a powerful computer could fit on a corner of a desk or that a person could actually walk on the moon. Someday you might look back on this moment and remember how far off it seemed.

And if we do get there, it will probably be because of a group of high-powered L.A. geeks whose job is Rocket Science, literally. Not everyone thinks in a time of deficits and danger we should be thinking about the future in such a big way. Some of you may even think it can’t be done, but I disagree, and I’m confident that once the project gets going in earnest, most of you will be supporting the men and women who make it happen.

And I’ll be sure to tell them when I bump into them at the Dry Cleaners.


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