Some of my fondest memories of growing up are of watching rocket launches on television. The Mercury program, and then the later Gemini, and Apollo series. Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, these were household names to my family. It all happened with blazing speed, and then vanished like a meteor from the nation’s imagination. As Marina Benjamin relates in her wonderful memoir Rocket Dreams, it is now hard to grasp how rapidly it all took place, how driven we were as a nation to set foot on the Moon, how uncertain it was that we would reach that goal, and how quickly we turned away from it when it was over. The recent film Apollo 11, based on archival footage, narrated in the words of those who took part in the events at the time, captures that sense of energy and national purpose.
The drama played out on live television, for all the world to see. From John Kennedy’s 1962 speech, where he declared the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, to Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface in July 1969, was a span of less than seven years. At its peak in 1967, NASA absorbed over 4% of the US Federal Budget, and most of that went to human spaceflight. The pace of felt time quickened and then slowed once more. By the mid-1970s, the program was a shell of its former self. The last two Apollo missions were canceled. A mission to Mars was canceled. The space station, canceled. Only the Space Shuttle remained of that earlier grand vision, like the smile of some Cheshire Cat, a high-priced bus system with no place to go.
All this tumult filled my teenage brain with wild ideas. At the age of twelve, watching Neil Armstrong’s small step while living in a trailer park in Baltimore, I vowed to myself that I would one day walk on the Moon like him. The human space program is what inspired me to become a scientist, with robotic missions a tasty sampler of what wonders lay in store for the people who would surely follow. America still seemed a land of opportunity then. Anything was possible. We were headed into space, and it would happen quickly. At the Apollo heights, I became a fan of science fiction and dreamt of exploring other worlds, meeting alien races. My grandmother, concerned for my mental wellbeing, tapped me on the shoulder one day while I watched Star Trek and asked me to assure her that I didn’t really believe that stuff. How could I explain to her, a kind woman born before the automobile, someone who had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, how could I explain to her that my future was going to be different from her past, that we were on the verge of something new, that my future was to be one of a permanent state of astonishment?
At the time, the late 1960s and early 1970s, all astronauts were military pilots, with academic pedigrees, so when an Air Force recruiter came to my high school, I asked about signing up. He took a look at me and managed not to laugh, though I could detect the smirk. I was a painfully shy and skinny working-class kid, the classic geek, long-haired, socially awkward and not athletic, with poor eye-hand coordination, spacey, and forgetful. And asthmatic. So, on that day, I gave up my dream of becoming a pilot and flying to the stars. But, I was good with numbers and science, so if I couldn’t fly spaceships, I could still build them.
My high school was intended for vocational students going directly into the work world upon graduation, not for those going to college. The school’s only guidance counselor told me outright he couldn’t help me decide where to apply, or how. I was lucky that I tested well, and our society then was not as concerned about credentialing as we are now. High school students were not expected to have impressive CVs before even applying to college. So I had a shot, and John Hopkins took a chance on me, for which I will always be grateful.
The college catalogues in my high school library were woefully out of date, and the campus visit had not yet become part of the American rite of passage. Though only a half-dozen miles as the crow flies from where I lived, Hopkins might well have been on another planet, so when I finally arrived on campus — thinking I would join the aerospace engineering program — I was shocked to discover the program had shut down a few years before. The tides of Apollo funding ebbed just as quickly as they flowed. I have a vivid memory, probably concocted by my overactive imagination or a dream, of standing before a small and derelict red-brick outbuilding, with ivy covering the walls and windows, perhaps cooed at by a pigeon roosting in the dormers. A small wooden sign hung by the door, perhaps by a single rusting nail, and it read in cracked paint: Aerospace Engineering. So that dream went down to dust as well.
Clearly, my game plan needed to change again, so I decided to shift from engineering into physics and then to learn celestial mechanics. Perhaps, if I couldn’t fly or build spaceships, I could at least tell them where to go. The shift in goals from flying in outer space, to building spaceships for others to fly, and then the move into the more arcane and abstract world of theoretical physics, was not without its compensations. It was there I fell in love with mathematics and our idealized models of the world. Theoretical physics was a good place to follow the siren song of beauty while hiding for awhile from a real, messy, and ugly world, one that seemed to be coming apart in dangerous ways. After the final seduction of getting the chance to do mathematical physics for my PhD, I have never looked back.
Fast forward thirty years to Wallops Island, Virginia. While I have long been a fan of manned spaceflight, I had never seen a launch in person until September 2013. That day, I traveled with my child Kit to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, Virginia, to watch the launch of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) space probe. I was familiar with Wallops Island as a site for sub-orbital flights. Over 16,000 have been launched from the Wallops launch facility in its seventy-year history, but Orbital Sciences, one of the new breed of private launch companies, aspired to something more ambitious: to send a probe to the Moon. To top it off, it would be a night launch.
The night was memorable. Mild late-summer weather, with few clouds. We found a crowd gathering in Chincoteague, Virginia, about five miles from the launch site. Lift-off was scheduled for around 11 PM, and we arrived a few hours early and spread out our lawn chairs. It was like the Fourth of July. Families with their children and picnic dinners gathered around a large-screen display NASA had set up, broadcasting the countdown and some flight commentary. Right on time, the crowd hushed for the final countdown.
Then far in the distance to the south, the horizon took up what looked like a sudden sunrise and a small bright flame leapt from the ground, rising higher and higher, until it moved among the stars themselves. And then the ground rumbled as the sound of it finally arrived. A young boy near us shouted “Dad! It’s on fire!” and when his father didn’t respond, the boy shouted again: “But why is it on fire?”
How do you explain how a rocket works to a small child? But then, how do you explain to an adult whose lost the wonder of it what a rocket means? How do you explain to a student learning the Newtonian mechanics of rocket propulsion that the explanation you have just given them is correct, but also misses the point? The mathematics, though beautiful, is desiccated and bloodless, cold equations devoid of some crucial sense of why a rocket strikes a spark to the tinder of the human imagination. A rocket is a tool of mythical power because it can take a piece of the everyday human world and fling it to the stars. That’s why a night launch is so poignant, because the tail of the rocket isn’t overwhelmed by the Sun’s glare or the blazing blue sky, instead it becomes one with the night sky and takes part in its awesome splendor.
The power of the idea is not felt in our ideas, or stories, or images from afar. To feel it in your bones you have to see it first-hand. The film Apollo 11 is the closest I’ve come to replicating that experience. For all of human history, people dreamed of leaving the Earth, to fly like Icarus above the sky, and now we can do it but we take this magic for granted. Rockets are dreams made into fuel and fire. And if we forget to dream, or if we only dream other dreams, we will lose the sky.
The author Kurt Vonnegut witnessed one of the Apollo launches and called it a kind of orgasm, an experience which unsettled that unflappable and sardonic man. The Orbital Sciences Minotaur rocket I saw at Wallops was not nearly as big as Apollo’s Saturn V. I didn’t experience the launch as an orgasm, and in the end phallic symbolism is too small-minded and churlish to get to the heart of the matter. I should not have been surprised that when all was said and done, when the LADEE spacecraft joined the silent stars, I found myself moved and shaken. Watching it chase the Moon, I was reminded how much I yearned to go myself.
Now, nearing the end of my career, my mental and physical wanderlust endure. Hence my ongoing interest in space exploration, my curiosity about the endless deeps of space, the workings of the atom, and the austere beauty of mathematical theorems. I feel lucky that this is so, because it keeps my mind young while my body ages, yet I’ve often wondered where that fascination in things just beyond the horizon originates. It’s hard even for scientists, or perhaps especially for scientists, to speak of what drives them in rational terms. I think this is because ultimately it is not rational. It is primal.
During the first Bush Administration, around the time when Congress was debating whether to fund the International Space Station (ISS), D Allen Bromley, the president’s science advisor, came to visit our university. At a meeting with the physics faculty, I asked him about something that was worrying me: Given the tight budgets in the space program, and cutbacks in science funding more generally, should we be building a space station that had no clear science objective? The Mars and Moon programs had been canceled years earlier, and so the Space Station wasn’t even being touted as a way-station on the way to anywhere. Critics complained it would be an expensive pressurized tin-can in low-Earth orbit, a made-up destination to create a purpose for another troubled program: the Space Shuttle. These projects presented engineering challenges, to be sure, but major science organizations had come out publicly against the ISS because of fears that cost overruns would gradually eat into the budget for robotic exploration of deep space, and other important basic research projects.
Bromley’s answer to my question was that the earlier Apollo program, and later the Space Shuttle and the ISS, were our cathedrals. For a nuclear physicist to use such rhetoric among his physics peers astonished me, and left me speechless. But I have come to realize that where we reach for our metaphors can reveal the true wellspring of our motivations. The cathedrals were also not rational. Built in a more openly religious time, they were physical manifestations of spiritual aspirations for transcendence. A vaulted space to promote wonder, awe, and a sense of majesty, built to foster a sense of God’s immanent presence in the world and to guide our vision upward toward heaven. In the current age of mankind, the aspiration to transcend human limitations has, for some, become a desire to literally ascend into the heavens on a pillar of fire, and dreams of creating a spacefaring civilization are their source of hope. Thus, perhaps it’s true that dreams of cathedrals and spaceships have the same point of origin in the human heart and soul, nestled there alongside our need for hope in a better, an open-ended, human future. The audacity of the vision is breathtaking.
The pace of felt time quickens once again, and there is renewed talk of a return to the Moon, asteroid prospecting, and settlement on Mars. Even so, building that spacefaring civilization will be the work of centuries. Before we can terraform Mars we will have to navigate the various and compounding crises we face on Earth. We stand on the edge of forever, and our choices matter because they can shift the long-term odds in our favor, or against us. If we lose our way at home, we risk losing our only chance at the stars.
Image credit: Apollo 11 launch. NASA photo. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.
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