Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Exploration, here and beyond

Interesting items in the November National Geographic.  One about the renewed interest in travelling to, landing on, and colonizing Mars, the other concerning the ever relaxing restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba.

In the items about Cuba, the Nat Geo writer dispensed with the standard political discourse as to whom to blame, the recently deceased Castro or the over 50 year response by our government to his rule, and focused on the people and how American tourism might help or hurt.  We often forget that the rest of the world has not banned its citizens from visiting Cuba, tourists from Canada and Europe have been travelling to and from Cuba for decades.  But America, a mere 90 miles away at its closest point, has been for decades as unreachable as many think Mars is today.

Now, Cuba will receive American tourists by the boatload, and not those boats often found swamped in the ocean between Cuba and Florida, but huge cruise ships with thousands of tourists eager to spend their vacation money on a Cuban experience.  Will that influx of money help improve the infrastructure of Cuba which has deteriorated during the embargo?  Will it improve the life and living standards of the everyday Cuban who has been virtually exempt from the amazing changes that have occurred since the 1960's?  Will it alter our perception of the people of Cuba, remind us that they seek the same things we seek, and enable us to consider them without the filter of politics?  Will we aid them in their transition, extending an open hand as opposed to the closed fist which we have long shown to them?  And, in discovering the strength of the Cuban people, and the beauty of their land, especially the Gardens of the Queen, the pristine marine preserve that lies untrammeled on Cuba's western coast, will we tread like explorers seeking knowledge and insight, or conquerors looking for resources to plunder?

Despite a recent discussion I had with a friend who insists that the US Government has had secret bases on Mars for many years, and that there is intelligent life there as well, I am encouraged by the recent interest in sending humans to Mars in the next 20 years.  (If you google secret mars bases, you can read for yourself some of the internet talk on this subject).  I am encouraged, despite the incredible challenges that such space travel entails, and the enormous costs involved, because it is bigger-than-life goals such as this that, I believe, is essential for humans to maintain and nurture, both as individuals and as groups. I feel strongly that if America truly needs to be great again, it is for lack of vision that was reflected in the race to the moon of the 1960's.  You can argue the point from a which came first, the chicken or the egg debate, but it seems clear to me that humanity can only reach its full potential through advanced goals.  Keep the bar low, get low returns, raise the bar high get remarkable returns.  

While I vividly remember watching on our 12" black and white TV as Neil Armstrong jumped lightly from the Eagle onto the lunar surface, I was certainly unaware at the time how incredible a trip it had been from the inspiring words of JFK in 1961 to that historic day.  I read recently that the NASA budget at the time was about 4% of the total budget for the United States (that would be like spending $140 billion today compared with the actual budget of $18 billion).  In addition to that huge commitment of resources, the NASA team was comprised of the smartest people of the time, not to mention the bravest.  While I am sure that today's NASA team also includes some of the best and brightest of our time, I wonder if the focus on individual wealth and fame precludes many from such a career.  

My interpretations of the greatest events in human history includes an understanding that virtually all of these events were the result of cooperation within a group towards a common goal.  While there is plenty of evidence in today's vitriolic version of media and communication concerning organizations of people with common concerns, the conversations seem more tribal than cooperative.  Our group versus your group.  We versus them.  While we all must wish for a successful Trump presidency, as his success is America's success, I am concerned that his vision of a great America is a backward looking one.  He clearly is in tune with the issues that everyday Americans face, but offers solutions that are rooted in how things were, not how things are or can someday be.

Fortunately, men like Elon Musk, founder of Space X, along with the unsung thousands who work with Musk, at other private space exploration firms and NASA, continue to provide vision about what can be accomplished.  Like those who imagined the day when a man might walk on the moon, there are a multitude of men and women in America that imagine a day when some even greater event might take place, and who are willing to work in concert with other dreamers to make that event a reality.  Sadly, there are those with loud and influential voices who prefer to ignore the science that
presents information contrary to their religious and commercial perspectives, often ridiculing people of intellect and scientific discipline.

Of course, manned missions to Mars will not result in equitable income distribution, livable wage jobs, lower student debt, or health insurance for all Americans, but perhaps the mere goal of such a trip, and the fact that such a goal requires resources and cooperation across many disciplines and commitment from people from multiple generations, will spur Americans to think beyond the short term and begin to seek the deep satisfaction that only long term plans and group achievements can produce.

From being beaten into space by Sputnik and the Russians in 1957 to the first manned moon landing in 1969, we achieved a remarkable feat that most people thought impossible.  Imagine what the next twelve years could bring with such focus and determination!!