Friday, July 8, 2011

In a Single Day and Night of Misfortune…

When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut.  I loved the space program and planned to be an air force pilot, one of the few ways I knew to become an astronaut.  Even though incredibly poor eyesight ruined that dream, I still waited excitedly for NASA to get the space shuttle program going.  I collected shuttle toys and trinkets and even had a blueprint.
"Hey, now I can make my own!"
Well, I thought it was a blueprint.  It was really just a line drawing with some science-ey notations.

Years later I had a son and moved to Chicago.  There’s lots to do in Chicago, but my son loved the Museum of Science and Industry the best.  He called it the “butt museum” because of all of the buttons to push.  Thanks to a gift of membership from the Lee Family, we started visiting every week.  I would carry my son from exhibit to exhibit so he could push the butts, bounce off simulated molecules, and pretend to ride an airplane.  We routinely visited the 1900s ice cream store.
Also, don't ask what a 1900s main street has to do with it, either.
Question: What does 1900s ice cream have to do with science and industry?  Answer: Shut up.  They give you extra cherries if you ask.

We watched the giant, automated toy assembly machine make incredibly fragile gyroscopes.  Really, we watched it break down more than we watched it work; automation is pointless.
Seriously, it was broken 80% of the time.
After weeks of visits and seeing everything but the coal mine (I figured it would scare him), I noticed a sign to the space exhibit.  We followed the signs to the back corner of the museum, through a hastily-constructed hallway, to a tiny room behind the IMAX theater.
Okay, the exhibit could have been cooler.
Like the rest of the MSIC, the space exhibit was filled with great stuff.  They had a mock-up of the moon lander on the moon with little mannequins in space suits.  They had a Mercury capsule that had been used and fished out of the ocean.  They had moon rocks.  They even had a gift shop with cool space-ey things in it!  The only thing they did not have were visitors.  The hall was empty.
Of course, it could have been worse.
America isn’t interested in space anymore and that’s a shame, because that’s what America was for when I was a kid.  America was going to go into space, colonize other planets, meet aliens, and -- most of all -- get us off this rock before the sun burned out. Don’t get me wrong, freedom, liberty, equality are all great things, but they’re a means, not an end.  Going into space gives America a purpose, a reason for being a nation.  With the downward spiral of the space program, it feels like America is just a bunch of people with a common border.

As I listened to the last shuttle take off for the last time, I was filled with disappointment.  Sure, NASA is a disappointment, but what else do we have?  Where do we go from here?

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