14 October 2013

Laura from Washington, PA  

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Do you remember when we were explorers?

Laura from Pennsylvania certainly does.

"When I grew up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to work for NASA. I mean yes, I liked dolls and makeup and stuff, but what I really wanted was to go up in space, where nobody had ever been before."

Laura is a 29-year old Navy pilot now, which you think would be exciting in and of itself. But she isn't satisfied.

"When Congress gutted the manned spaceflight program a few years ago, a little part of me died with it. It almost became like, 'So what? We're just gonna fly around here in the atmosphere and burn holes in the ozone layer?' We've already figured out how to do that."

To be sure, there are scientists and inventors working in laboratories and offices and backyards, pushing the bounds of human creation and efficiency. The work they do is incredible.

"But nobody is physically out there, pushing the limits of how far human beings can actually travel, of the places we've never been. And we've made the International Space Station about as exciting as a trip to Denny's."

Laura represents the forgotten generation of American explorers. This generation has read about Shackleton, admired Hillary and Peary, and aims to make the fictional work of Captain Kirk a thing of reality. They are tough, smart, and itching for more. They want to go where nobody has ever gone.

Now understand that there are still astronauts in America. They still apply, get selected, and follow a stringent training regimen. They represent "the best of the best" of the cream of the crop. But for Laura and others like her, it's a hollow reality.

"Yes, they still exist. But if my rocket doesn't have "USA" printed on the side of it...I mean, I'm all about cultural exchanges, but there comes a point when that's just plain embarrassing."

After NASA and the US government gave up on manned spaceflight, many rushed to punctuate a national "laissez faire" feeling about the program. "If God wanted us to live in outer space, we wouldn't have inner ears," wrote author Michael Lind. To sum it all up:  it's OK, we don't really care about space anymore.

I mean, is there an app for that?

And today, as the federal government clocks two full weeks in shutdown, arguing whether citizens should have access to basic, reliable health care, our national dialogue seems to be adrift like a wayward satellite. Children growing up in America today can't understand how Alan Shepard and John Glenn went from a schoolhouse to a spacecraft in orbit; they can't understand how thousands of men and women labored from hundreds of thousands of miles away to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon; they can't understand how much 238,900 miles means, or the promise that 35 million miles holds.

Laura slings her flight bag over her shoulder as we finish our lunch and walk out the door. "When a society loses the will or ability to explore, it's the beginning of the end. When all you can do is apply your resources to sustaining what you've already got, you've lost."

Tomorrow is Columbus Day, a day when Americans come together to (mostly) incorrectly recount the voyage of Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the trade route to the West Indies that eventually would become the United States of America. Human history, it turns out, has been driven by men and women who are willing to physically move from where they were to where they had never been before.

It is easy for those of us here on Earth with our perceived technological supremacy and seeming-universal omnipotence to postulate that we've figured it all out--or at least, whatever space that's left out there isn't worth our time and salt. But isn't that what our ancestors thought?

"The world is flat"? "The sun revolves around the Earth"? Do these ring a bell?

In the immortal words of a former Secretary of Defense, "We don't know what we don't know." We can either accept that and be beaten by societies who aren't willing to throw in the towel, or turn it around and capitalize on a generation of American explorers who are ready for the journey.

I can promise you, we're ready.

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