Life, the Universe, and Everything

20 Jul

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the first Moon landing, and Thursday is the final landing of the shuttle program.  Thursday morning at 4:56 a.m. Central (my) time, to be specific.  I think I am obligated to say “I could never get the hang of Thursdays” in honor of it being the 42nd Moonversary, and therefore slightly better and geekier than the 41st.

Just a side note:  I have been trying for approximately 2 years to get “Moonversary” to catch on.  Google currently yields 67 results for the word.  Not sure why the rest of humanity hasn’t latched onto this most perfect of made-up words, to be honest.  (I think it’s perfectly cromulent.)

Anyway, where was I?

Here? Was I here? The last surface the three Apollo 11 astronauts walked on before walking into their capsule and then on the Moon?

No, although I was there nearly 2 weeks ago.  But now we’re talking about waking up at 4 a.m. on a non-work day.  It’s a silly sacrifice, really, not even as bad as my 3 hours of sleep before the final launch of Atlantis.  I can roll out of bed and watch NASA TV and livetweet while half asleep.  I imagine it will be kind of fun. But it made me think:  how much sleep would I sacrifice to see a Moon landing?

The answer being, of course, “as much sleep as I could sacrifice while remaining sane enough to view and appreciate said Moon landing.”  I believe that would amount to two or three days.  Not that the question’s likely to come up.

And unless unexpected strides are made in the area of space tourism, my career in neuroscience is unlikely to lead me anywhere near outer space.  Although, there is one thing about biology:  it doesn’t tend to wake you up at 4 in the morning.  Of course, it’s also (currently) firmly rooted in Earth, so it’s win some/lose some.

Speaking of things that I dearly wish would happen in my lifetime–Mars.  Also on this date, 35 years ago, Viking I became the first spacecraft to successfully land and perform its mission on Mars.  The Moon is cool and all.  But Mars is another planet.

And just six days ago, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft became the first probe to enter the orbit of an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  At the tweetup, one thing that a number of people seemed focused on was the possibility of future study of near-Earth asteroids.  This is a pretty amazing step in that direction, which has already provided equally amazing images.

And finally, today, the discovery of a fourth moon orbiting Pluto has been announced.  We’ve known about Pluto for over 80 years, and we are just now discovering that it has a fourth moon (as-yet unnamed).

We’re discovering new and wonderful things all the time.  We have the tools to do so now.  It’s easy to be nostalgic about the era of Mercury and Apollo and Viking. Believe me.  No one hypocritically loves the recent past while deriding its objective horribleness more than I do.  The past was a terrible place to live.  The present:  still pretty terrible for the majority of people, but somewhat less so. The future?  Probably also slightly less terrible!  I’m looking forward to it.

That may sound pessimistic, but the simple fact that we’re able to make life less awful is almost literally incredible.  Yes, as a species, we’re kind of a mess.  But we’ve always been kind of a mess.  We’re biological machines, it’s what we do.  No cleanrooms or mission control for us.  And I believe that perhaps one of our greatest survival traits has been our ability to make small steps toward a world worthy of our highest hopes and aspirations.

Neil Armstrong famously misspoke his line, saying “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” instead of his intended “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”  But maybe he was right.  Walking on the face of the Moon was a major accomplishment, but, in the grand scheme of things, it really was only a small step in a series of small steps for all of humanity.

So today is a good day for looking back, on Apollo and Viking and the shuttle program.  But it’s also an excellent day for looking forward.


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