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July 24, 2009

Space: Continuing Education

Jack Schmitt, the last American to stand on the moon, said something on the BBC the other
day which made me stop and think, “Americans largely rely on public media for their ongoing
education.” Now, there is a thought! His point was that Americans, who fund the space
programs and encourage/discourage their members of Congress to budget adequately…
Americans have no form of continuing education on the real value of space exploration,
planetary pioneering or galaxy probing except that which they can glean from television or the
movies. And don’t sneer at the movies too much, since all television is entertainment these
days, what’s the difference? Apollo 13, the movie, may have been fictitious in large part, but at
least it was as close to NASA’s tale as possible – and longer, more involving at that.

However, I think Jack got it partly wrong. Originally, NASA only added public relations and
information as an afterthought. The Public Affairs Officer at NASA prior to Apollo 11 was told by
Arthur C. Clarke, “I cannot wait to see those 1st live images from the moon!” To which Brian
Duff, the PAO, replied, “What live images? We’re not taking a video camera.” Arthur carefully
decried this decision (because he felt that no one would believe NASA has actually achieved its
goal unless they saw it for themselves, live). Brian saw the light and ordered JSC to put a TV
camera up there in a hurry. Jim Ragan, the head of optics at NASA JSC, had almost no power to
tap into, had no remote control to tie into and, in the end, climbed up into the already-
mounted Lunar Lander atop the Saturn 5 and simply bolted the fixed focal length and aperture
B&W video camera to the lander leg aiming “as best I could guess” at the foot of the unfolded
ladder. Why were the images so blurred? The sun was in the lens and they had no aperture
control in Mission Control. It took until Apollo 14 to find enough power on the LM to bring a
color camera, one JSC could control remotely.

Something else… if all television is entertainment, then why doesn’t NASA stop pretending
spaceflight is a “minimal” risk? Every Shuttle has the word “experimental” written on the side.
In aviation, this tells you the craft is unique (no two Shuttles are the same) and inherently risky.
In fact, every single spaceflight by the US and Russia has had a near-fatal event, when
something went so wrong that, if not corrected, resulted in death. The astronauts all know this,
they accept this. As Brewster Shaw (twice Astronaut pilot or commander on Columbia) told me
in 1984, “One day, we know we’re going to lose a Shuttle.” And still they train, fly and push the
boundaries of human endeavor. Why? Because they are the last of the true explorers in the
tradition of Magellan, Lewis & Clarke, Scott, Cooke and so many others. They go where others
have not, to pave the way for humanity to follow.

If their path is indeed to be ours one day, we need to become more engaged in NASA’s
doings. But NASA hides facts, pretends they are “in communication” with astronauts (e.g.
Apollo 13, when “communication” was mostly reduced to getting occasional body telemetry as
the drifting 4⁰ antenna swept past earth, telling them the men were still alive), and overall is
only worried what Congress will think or if Congress will cut budgets if someone dies. If the
press had full access to the astronauts, if they could speak freely (and honestly), you would
learn so much more, more about these superhumans, more about their underpaid, altruistic
desire to venture forth, to explore.

So when thinking of continuing education, the role TV can play is important – important to
the very future of space exploration for humankind. But it is also the responsibility of television
to stop accepting the drivel coming out of NASA without asking the tough questions, without
exercising their rights (freedom of information) to obtain accurate and truthful facts from the
men and women flying those missions. The NASA press gag order should be lifted precisely
because NASA is really only playing a game of find-the-money with Congress. But Congress
represents the people – people who are being denied the truth and excitement of the real
dangers, benefits and thrill of space exploration. If we are, as a nation and perhaps as a species,
going to find the will and means to explore and eventually colonize the planets near us and
those more distant, we have to do so based on our own very personal education, our own
evaluation of what’s in it for us. To deny people that right is to relegate NASA’s activities to
fringe space-races, a false list of meaningless benefits (which always starts with Velcro), and a
scientific luxury we think we cannot afford simply because we have no honest idea why we’re
doing it in the first place. That’s why public interest waned after the moon walks, the visual
spectacle was no longer new enough and we had no educational insight of why we were really
there in the first place.

Try this… every time you make a cell phone call, you should know that the computer chip in
there is twice as powerful with ten times the memory as the whole Lunar Lander had. And yet,
your cell phone’s inter guts can be traced, step by step, back to the advances made to make
that lunar landing possible, every wire, every printed circuit board, every memory chip. Velcro?
Bah…piffle. Every car, computer, TV program, radio show, hospital, plane, video game, traffic
signals, telephone, Internet, Windows, Apple, every manufacturing plant, every Wal-Mart,
every prescription filled… today, all these were made possible by the developments, inventions
and technology developed at, by or for NASA. Period, end of the lesson.

Now that you know how your current life depends on what NASA has already done, isn’t
your interest just a little piqued to know what the future holds? As things stand, NASA won’t
bother to tell you, unless your Congressmen and women make them spill the beans. I think Jack
Schmitt is right, continuing education is the way forward, but NASA has to let us past their
“need to know” barriers.