Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part III

A trick of the light, a moment of distraction, what ever it was, I did something wrong.

In a heart stopping, bug-eyed, “Oh CRAP” moment, I was cutting the wrong way; not down to the next flag, but into the dark woods. Back then, no one wore a helmet when they skied. It simply didn’t happen. We didn’t even think of is as being “wimpy” or less manly or any of that, because you just never saw it. You would have been just as likely to think, “Hey, no one here in the swimming pool is wearing shoulder pads” as you were to think, “Wow, no one on the slopes is wearing any head protection.” It simply wasn’t on our collective radar. The only time I ever saw a helmet on the slopes was during an actual competition, and even then, it was for only for competitive jumping, not slalom. We would have been as surprised to see a unicycle going down the trail as a person in a helmet. It goes without saying that my knit hat wasn’t going to do me much help in this situation except maybe keep the smaller skull fragments from flying loose on what was looking like a highly likely impact. For that split second, I was truly terrified.

Looking into the trees, I knew one thing. If I went in, I wasn’t coming out. Not breathing, at any rate. I was going perhaps thirty miles per hour or better, could barely make out the trunks in the dark and shadows and it was all unbroken, deep snow. Somehow, at the very edge of the trail, I managed to pull my skis up and redirect myself back onto the course and into tree free territory. I missed a bunch of flags, botching my high speed run, barely missed the coach as she rolled out of the way when I whipped by her at the finish line and came to a stop a short down the slope, completely freaked out.

It took me a while to calm down and let the adrenalin subside. Somehow, I screwed up enough courage to hike back up and make the other two required passes, but this time, my speed was horrible. I practically coasted down and I remember the coach being ticked off at my obvious lack of effort. I don’t think she understood how I, at age sixteen, had come face to face with my own mortality that night and the very powerful effect it held over me.

I didn’t make the A list.

I stayed on the team for a while longer but I decided that there just was no way I was going to get near that situation again, and the coach new it. I only actually raced once and, surprise, surprise, didn’t win. Honestly, I don’t remember if I finished the year out with them or not. If I did, it would have only been as a bench warmer.

One of the unforeseen side effects of my skiing this hard and pushing my self to achieve more and more ability was that skiing with my father had changed for me too. Skiing now, even at what I considered sedate speeds, I was far faster than Dad and outstripped him quickly, often loosing each other for an hour or so and cooling my feet at the lift line while scanning the crowds for his familiar hat or coat. The other problem was a classic catch-22. I didn’t want to ski at full throttle, on the outer envelope of my abilities any more, so I didn’t. But now, the slower pace and wide, meandering trails that I had enjoyed before, now bored me.


Image from Skiernet.com

Skiing had lost its allure. Other than the good company and the spectacular views, I just didn’t find it much fun any longer. I’d still go with Dad, but we went less and less as I found excuses not to go. I knew he still enjoyed it, so I’d go from time to time but honestly, I would have been just as happy to spend the time with him doing just about anything else.

When I went away to college, I mostly stopped all together. There were a few times here and there, but they were pretty few and far between. When I moved to Maine, I stopped entirely. When I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire, there was fantastic skiing to be had about forty minutes away and a half-day ticket was eleven bucks. Today, we’re more than a two hour drive from anything that could be called a real mountain and once you add in having to get off the island into the mix, you are talking about one serious time commitment. That, on top of a lift ticket fee that will make your heart stop and your wallet try and scurry down your pant leg and into your boot, and I just haven’t even been tempted.

I had been spoiled by proximity,cheap lift tickets and abilities that ruined me for anything slower than ludicrous speed.

Short Stack, on the other hand, hasn’t. This was being brought up to me again, first by my own mother a few weeks ago and now separately by Action Girl.

“I was talking to a friend of mine who’s taught ski school and he says that Short Stack is old enough to learn. We should give it a try!”

By “we” she means “me.” Action Girl knows how to do a lot of outdoorsy things, but alpine skiing isn’t one of them. I’m sure she could do it, but she has none of the equipment and, regardless of how rusty and neglected it is, I do. I’m starting to think about it in a positive light. I love spending one-on-one time with my kids and this would be a unique thing I could do with my son, at least until Lulu Belle gets old enough to want to give it a try. We wouldn’t have to go to the big mountains for him to learn, but rather the small, old fashioned, groomed hill near Action Girl’s folks house. We could even spend the night there and thus have plenty of time to recover before heading home.

Against my initial reaction to the idea, I’m warming to it now.

It’s been almost fifteen years since I’ve gone skiing and I’m willing to bet that my abilities have eroded quite a bit, along with the edges on my once cutting edge, racing skis. Perhaps too, my memory of what it was like to be able to fly along like a fighter jet down the face of a ridiculously steep, ice covered slope has faded enough to let me again enjoy a leisurely, weaving ski down a broad, open trail.

Maybe it will be fun again.

I think Short Stack and I will go and see. He’ll need boots, skis, poles and naturally, a helmet, but I’m kind of getting excited to try. There will be a lot to show him. How to snow plow, how to turn, the right way to fall down and then, how to get back up again. I anticipate a very long day with lots of snow filled jackets and pants. I think it will be worth it though, in the end.

And later on, when we are sitting in the lodge, enjoying our twenty dollar cup of American chop suey, I’ll tell him the story of Dad versus the T-Bar. If you happen to come looking for us on the mountain though, we’ll be in line at the high speed quad.

Dangerous Poems

Background:

There is a short, daily radio program hosted by author and entertainer, Garrison Keillor called “The Writer’s Almanac.” He starts off with some information pertinent to that day in history and then reads one poem. Here in Maine, the show is on at eight in the morning and I often heard it on my way to work as I drove along, alone with my own thoughts. Here is my take on that experience.

Dangerous Poems- 2/25/05

My car hums along the morning highway and the man with the laconic voice, the man from Minnesota, comes over the radio.

It is time for dangerous poetry.

This is always a moment of apprehension. This is a moment to hold the breath and be ready to snap the volume off or… pay close attention and let the vision develop.

My day has just begun and could be anything. My mind is open and uncluttered, waiting to find out how things will go.

Will it be drawn up in hope and humor?
Cast off in deep thoughts?
Or crushed in some previously unknowns personal misery?

Will it be:
“I met a funny man in a cap…”

Or,

“Cancer has gripped her body and hopes…”

Perhaps I’m a coward, but it seems that it’s too early this morning for cancer. The day is fresh. My smile is easy, but as the Minnesotan speaks the words, I listen with worry in my eyes.

On?

Off?

My hand hovers over the dial.

“I saw a woman with a bright blue hat today…”

Oh, thank goodness.

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