Monday, June 23, 2008

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

As a geek, I've always had at least a casual interest in the NASA and the space program, but I never really learned a whole lot about it. In 1998 I watched HBO's fantastic miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and since then I've become even more fascinated with the space program and the personalities that built it.

If you've never seen From the Earth to the Moon, rent or buy it on DVD. It's a fascinating retelling of the entire Apollo program (along with one episode that focuses on Mercury and Gemini). It does, of course, take some dramatic license in the name of compelling televsion, but my understanding is its as faithful a docudrama as you're going to see. (It also won an Emmy and a Golden Globe.) In particular, the episodes "Apollo 1," "Spider" (creation of the Lunar Module), "That's All There Is" (Apollo 12) and "Galileo Was Right" (Apollo 15) are among my very favorites.

Since then, I've seen a couple different documentaries about the Apollo program, but nothing nearly as good as the one Discovery Channel has been bringing us over the past three weeks: When We Left Earth. It's a three episode, six hour documentary extravaganza that covers the entire history of NASA and the manned spaceflight program, including the very underappreciated shuttle program. There is video footage in this documentary that the public has never seen before. It's full of interviews with veterans from every phase of NASA's history. It's just phenomenal stuff.

Of particular interest to me was last night's episode, which was basically all about the space shuttle. I know that, anymore, the shuttle program is thought of as a fleet of rickety old spacecraft, but it's truly a remarkable machine. I know that when thinking about the shuttle program it's easy to focus on the failures of Challenger and Columbia, but I think that only goes to show what an unprecedented success it's actually been. For more than 20 years those craft have been putting humans into orbit and safely bringing them back, as hazardous and difficult an undertaking as you can possibly take on. Last night When We Left Earth spent a lot of attention on the deployment and subsquent repairs of the Hubble space telescope and it's just remarkable stuff and some of that footage is simply jaw dropping.

You know, every time I watch somethig like this I simply can't get over the fact that we were able to go to the moon, for the last time, a couple years before I was born yet not have found a reason to go back in the 36 years since. I know when that sort of debate comes up people always focus on the money. It's a valid opinion but, I think, a short sighted one. Money is just not what the space program is about. It's about discovery and it's tough to put a monetary value on that.

The thing about discovery is that you don't know what you're going to find out from it or what the impact will be. But every so often you find something that will change the world. I've always liked the example brought up in an episode of The West Wing in which a physicist named Dr. Millgate says, "Great achievement has no roadmap. The x-ray's pretty good. So's penicillin. And neither was discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean when the electron was discovered in 1897 it was useless, and now we have an entire world run by electronics."

What's left to discover on the moon? On Mars? I don't know. But isn't that the point?