Thursday, March 16, 2006

It Was Eighty Years Ago Today...

...Dr. Goddard taught the world to play. On this date, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard launched the first-ever liquid-fueled rocket in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was a first step that led, in 1969, to human beings walking on the Moon.

It burns me deeply, as someone who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, the home of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the American home of Dr. Wernher von Braun, that men haven't walked on the Moon in thirty years, that we haven't walked on Mars yet, visited Venus or Jupiter, nor, in fact, been out of low-Earth orbit (the International Space Station hugs the Earth pretty closely).

There should be multiple stations, in a variety of types, orbiting the Earth, with regular commercial, scientific and industrial traffic. We should have a permanently manned base on the Moon and have visited the major planets by now. We should have explored the asteroid belt and begun mining it. We should be preparing the first missions to visit the moons Enceladus (a world with liquid water!) and Titan around Saturn. We should know if there's other life in our solar system.

We should be doing so much, and yet we aren't. We have turned back on ourselves and lost the High Frontier spirit. I'm no longer the one-world utopia fan of Star Trek, hoping our better selves are out doing diplomatic missions to the stars, but we should be just on the verge of star travel of some kind.

Dr. Goddard is one of my personal heroes because he kept on. When the folks of Amherst got tired of missiles falling into their fields, he moved to New Mexico and kept on experimenting. When the US government came around in the 1940's to see if there were military applications for his work and if he would work with them, he politely said no. He knew what the Germans were doing with his early work -- the V-2 bombs that rained on London -- and feared something similar on our side. Not that he wasn't a patriot, but he was a scientist first and always.

When his lung disease slowed him down, he kept working. When his experiments went awry and crashed, he studied the wreckage and launched again. His eyes were firmly fixed on the stars.

The rest of us have averted our gaze. Ad astra, Dr. Goddard.

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