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Mars Trip Postponed Indefinitely

In 2003 we are probably further from Mars than ever before
by Robert N. Going
Amsterdam - Mar 20, 2003
So, I guess I won't be going to Mars after all. Absent the invention of some miracle age-reversing formula and the sudden need for NASA to develop a Lawyers in Space program, the destruction of the Columbia, it seems, has finally put Mars beyond my hope.

It was so great to be a kid growing up at the dawn of the space age. Six at Sputnik, 8 when the Mercury astronauts were named, 9 for Gagarin and Shepherd, 10 for John Glenn. By then I had already absorbed Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Soon I would be devouring Ray Bradbury and his first, second, third expeditions to Mars and finally its exploration and colonization.

Heady stuff.

I was a senior in high school when Borman, Lovell and Anders made their Christmas trip circling the moon. The extended family had gathered at our house because my grandmother was a couple of days from dying. The old black and white TV with the rabbit ears had been fired up in the back room and suddenly from across the ether came the first pictures of the lunar surface from that orbiting spacecraft. Off camera, the astronauts passed a book back and forth.

"In the beginning," a voice softly crackled, "God created the heavens and the earth."

"Genesis," my aunt whispered.

"And the earth was without form, and void," they continued as the camera cruised over the dark formless void of our nearest neighbor.

". . .And the evening and the morning of the first day."

Seven months later and I had graduated from high school. My friends were out partying that Sunday in July 1969. I had to work a 10-hour shift at WCSS, all by myself as DJ, newsman and engineer. We were carrying the Yankees that afternoon.

The very loud teletype machine in the back room kept spitting out bulletins as the Apollo 11 lander came closer to the surface of the moon. I had permission to break away from the game (but not the beer commercials) for the final few seconds. I monitored the ABC audio feed.

"Eagle, you are go for power descent."

"Fourteen thousand feet and coming down beautifully."

"Five hundred and forty feet." And now I say to hell with the Yankee game and throw the switch.

"Four hundred feet ... face forward and hatch down ..." Such a calm, steady voice.

"Two hundred and fifty feet ... two hundred and twenty feet ... coming down nicely.

"One hundred feet ..." And now the whole world stops breathing.

"Seventy-five feet ...

"Lights on. Forward. Forward. Good. Forty feet ... picking up some dust ... Faint shadow ... Drifting to the right a little.

"Contact light. OK, engine stop ... Engine arm off.

"Houston ... Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed."

And there I am, 18-year-old high school graduate tough guy, all alone in a tiny radio station in upstate New York, sitting and blubbering like a baby.

And when, a few minutes later, I fulfill my obligation to the beer distributorship and return to the Yankee game, it turns out the fans hadn't missed much, because, of course, as the moment came, like everywhere else in the world, things just froze and all eyes were glued on the electric scoreboard in Yankee Stadium and when I throw the switch back all I can hear is thunderous cheers that just won't stop and suddenly at the stadium a recording of "America the Beautiful" starts playing and people are crying and laughing and dancing and screaming their hearts out and I know that if I live to be 1,000 I will never experience another moment like this and I savor it. I savor it.

And finally Phil Rizzuto says, "Holy cow! I don't know about you, but I'm all choked up!"

Several hours later, and now it's dark and the ancient portable TV I had borrowed creaks on and the old picture tube lights up a little and the guy whose first name is my middle name, up there on the moon opens a little hatch and a camera springs to life and there he is at 10:56 p.m. EDT, one man, alone, stepping on the surface of the moon.

Just in time, too, for I had to finish the broadcast day with the 11 o'clock news and the national anthem.

Afterwards I remember going out into the parking lot and looking up at the clear night sky, all the stars in the heavens and that moon that could never, ever look the same again and then, off to the side, I see a small, red steady light.

Mars.

On Dec. 17, 2003, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first flight by the Wright Brothers. My grandparents were born before that happened. Less than 24 years later, the world celebrated the triumph of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic in that rickety Spirit of St. Louis. A mere 20 years after that, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. And 22 years after that, men were walking on the surface of the moon.

Werner von Braun predicted at the time that we could be on Mars by 1985. I'd be turning 34 that year. Just right.

Then the bean counters and the whiners took over.

The vision was lost. The future kept being postponed with each passing fiscal year. Instead of being a giant leap for mankind, the moon program became a metaphor. "We can put a man on the moon but we can't ..." You fill in the blank. Makes me sick.

So instead of the big stuff, NASA has been forced to keep busy with little stuff to keep the team together. Instead of a permanent base on the moon, we settle for a space station. (We had one of those in the '70s. Couldn't find the money to keep it in orbit, so we let it flame out.) Instead of developing the next generation space plane and interplanetary plasma rockets, we keep patching together our old shuttles.

And yet, from the dawn of mankind we have been restless, curious, ever-searching beings. If the scientists are right, we came out of Africa and filled the planet, never knowing what wonder we would find beyond the next horizon. Now that we have the tools to reach out past our world, why should we stop?

Remember that the old space program wasn't concerned with military conquest or subjecting a people or seeking out selfish gain. It was about challenge and discovery and excitement and small men with giant ideas facing the vast emptiness of the universe. It was about learning and seeing and being and believing in something bigger than yourself. It was about the human race after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution rising up out of this primordial swamp, reaching out and touching the face of God!

Robert N. Going is an attorney in Amsterdam, NY

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