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Sci Tech    H4'ed 7/8/09

Forty Years and Counting: The Death of the High Frontier

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Get ready to celebrate the original Blast From the Past. This July 20th marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. Expect hooplaunless another mega-celebrity picks that day to take one pill too many.

Forty years! There's a thought that makes me feel old. Yet I remember it distinctly; the first manned lunar landing was one of those fabled where were you when? moments, like the Kennedy assassination, only happier. In this case most of the world has the same answer: Watching television.

The moon shot lifted our spirits, and if you remember 1969 you know that was some heavy lifting. For a little while we thought anything was possible. We used to say, If they can put a man on the moon, why can't they (insert favorite lost cause here)?

Forty years on, we could use some of that gumption. I'm going to hazard a guess and say that most people alive today have never had the chance to gaze at the moon, knowing that, at that very moment, one of their species was up there, walking on it. They've never known that feeling because they werent born yet. The last moon shot was 37 years ago in 1972.

Younger folks aren't likely to say, If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we cure cancer? because, as far as they're concerned, we can't. To them its just history. And that makes me feel even older.

It seems so archaic. Even the words, we put a man on the moon are dated. We'd never say it that way now, our words would be gender-neutral, whatever the sex of the astronauts, and you'd better believe a woman would be among the first complement of lunar landers, today. If we had any, which we don't. We don't think that big, or high, anymore.

It's scary. The achievements of the Apollo program are starting to look like the actions of a half-forgotten god. Like a 10th century Italian looking at the ruins of Rome, we wonder who could build such a thing, and how.

And they did it when the Ford Pinto was a hot new car, they did it with computers less powerful than the giveaway Spiderman watch you get with a Happy Meal today.

If you'd have told me, forty years ago, when a human foot first stomped on the face of the man in the moon, that we'd be stuck on this overheated ball, crowding each other for elbow room, babbling inanities through a dozen electronic media yet to be invented back in 1969, with more of the same to come, and no human being further up than a couple hundred miles, and our only colony in the High Frontier a ridiculous doublewide in space, I'd have called you a cockeyed pessimist.

What the hell happened to us? It's like we reached that far, then turned inward. All our progress these days seems to be internal, prosaic, earthbound. We are connected in ever wider, ever tighter webs Our horizontal growth has been astounding. Humanity is on its way to becoming one, integrated organism. It is amazing, but is it inspiring? We've built the stairway to ourselves, but are we going anywhere? Where is the stairway to heaven?

The urge to explore is still there. Individuals still feel the pull of the beyond, they challenge themselves to go to extremes, and they do it, as best they can. But the real frontier is closed, so that impulse is indulged in ever more arcane, even fetishistic ways. And it's all about them, never about us.

So many people have felt compelled to risk life and limb climbing the worlds highest mountain that Everest is a garbage dump. It's so filthy it qualifies as a Superfund site. Other people cross the Pacific in an innertube or sail around the world on a surfboard. Three guys run across the Sahara and they make a reality show out of it. Truck drivers drive on water. They wait for it to freeze, then head north. No matter how ludicrous the task, someone will try it, and if they haven't yet, they will, because the impulse to attempt the impossible doesnt die, just because the Apollo program did.

I am entertained by all of it. I am uplifted by none of it.

Im getting older and I fight against grumpiness. There is nothing more tedious than some old dude pining for the glory days. I saw them and they werent so glorious. Weve made a lot of wonderful progress since then, but the High Frontier has died. Space is passe', the province of robots and telescopes, not people. It's a damned shame.

This generation will achieve great things, here on earth. Progress will come in ways and fields not even imagined yet. Not by old grumps like me, anyway. I'll leave that to the kids.

But I sure hope some of them are looking up, because my generation left a hell of a lot undone, up there. I want them to know the greatest high of all, the High Frontier.

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San Francisco based columnist, author, gym rat and novelist. My book, "The Confessions of a Catnip Junkie" is the best memoir ever written by a cat. Available on, or wherever fine literature is sold with no sales tax collected. For (more...)
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