Friday, February 01, 2008

Space Shuttle Columbia and Destination Moon

Over at Elder Son's blog, Better and Better, he reminds us of the significance of this date, five years past. He especially celebrates the efforts and projected goals of the the space program in general and the space shuttles in particular. That is a worthy read, and it inspired me to write this post. To better understand my references, I suggest you click the link and read Matt's post. I'll be referring to it. Go ahead, we'll wait right here.

Okay, now - - Personal and historic tie-ins. On 1FEB2003, while Matt was writing his police reports, Holly and I were motoring down Interstate 35. We'd gotten underway early, wanting to arrive at my brother Jerry's place in Georgetown in time for lunch. The music CD in the player ended, and my Belov├ęd Bride was selecting another. While she did, I punched a few presets on the radio. I heard something about the tragedy which had befallen the space shuttle and immediately turned up the volume. I more or less drove on autopilot while we sat and listened to the tragedy and the news medias' attempts to unravel the available information.

Our arrival in Georgetown was delayed, due to my driving slower while concentrating on the radio reports. Our tardiness went unnoticed, as Jerry and his wife Barbara were glued to the TV screen. I'm certain we had some kind of lunch that day, but I recall nothing of it. The details of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster have been well documented, both on that day and in the ensuing years, and I'll not try to recapitulate them here.

I am struck by a couple of points. Matt closed his post with, "When the ship lifts, all bills are paid. No regrets." This is a quote from “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long,” a segment of the novel, Time Enough for Love, by Robert A. Heinlein . It is precisely suited as a fitting memorial for those brave souls who died while pushing the envelope of space travel, with all that implies.

It is significant that Heinlein, the author, was an active participant in the development of the US space program. He was been called the Dean of Science Fiction and The Grand Master of Science Fiction. His writings from the 1930s onward urged the human spirit forward, beyond the bounds of Earth, first toward the planets, and thence to the stars.

Heinlein's activism was well known and led to his participation in the production of the first scientifically feasible space travel motion picture, “Destination Moon,” 1950. He wrote the screenplay, based on his two 1947 publications: the novel, Rocket Ship Galileo and the short story, also titled “Destination Moon.” Heinlein also served as a technical advisor on the film.

It should be mentioned here that Heinlein was himself an engineer and scientist, having graduated the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1929. He served actively on destroyers and aircraft carriers for five years. Found to have tuberculosis, he was discharged. It is arguable that Heinlein's writings and the movie especially, influenced many budding young scientists and fliers who would one day strive to work in the space program.

As a child, I saw "Destination Moon" in theater release and was utterly enchanted. It was decades later when I saw it again, and I must confess I missed the historical significance of a certain scene. When Doctor Charles Cargraves stepped onto the surface of the moon, leaving the space vehicle (Oh, hell. It was 1950. THEY called it The Rocket Ship.) He said, “By the grace of God, and the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of, and for the benefit of, all mankind.”

Then, in 1969, the following line echoed across a quarter million miles of space when the Apollo 11 crew read aloud the plaque they left behind on the moon: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

No, not the FIRST words uttered from the surface of another planet, but truly momentous. I think they rank right up there with, “That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.”

I've been unable to confirm that Robert Anson Heinlein had any influence on the writing on the commemorative plaque. We do know that he was present at many NASA functions and that he was welcome in many project offices.

Yes, I'll toast the memory of Columbia and her gallant crew. And I feel much the same as Matt expressed in his closing. Put another way: “Let us not mourn the fact that they are dead. Let us instead thank God that such people lived.”


1 comment:

Old NFO said...

/Toast Absent Comrades! \Toast