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Focal Plane: Space indifference

This is the twenty first instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it.

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, USA, last week, the crew of Apollo 11 was on hand to speak about their experiences and challenge present day humans to recapture the adventurous spirit that made the Apollo programme possible.

But Shawn Carratt of Diamond Bar, CA, USA does not care. Carratt spent the historic day reading about a more recent event: Dave Beckham’s altercation with a Riot Squad member at his first home match since rejoining the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“This is big news,” says Carratt, an Internet writer. “This is a group of fans who cheer for their team, and they have made it clear that they don’t really like Beckham much at all. And now Becks appears to be taking it personally.”

Carratt writes a blog about celebrities and their runins with the law, photographers, and fans. There is little mention of the ordinary people who are frequently caught in the crossfire amongst the celebrities, law, photographers, and fans. Instead, he frequently writes about events such as that which took place in Los Angeles the previous day. Why, then, no mention of three celebrities who took part in the most important event that has ever taken place?

Of the Apollo 11 crew, Carratt says, “I do talk about Buzz Aldrin every once in a while. He went on The Colbert Report one time last year. And if I had been doing this site back when he punched that conspiracy guy, I certainly would have had a lot to say about that. But Neil Armstrong has been such a recluse. He never does anything. He never goes for interviews, he never appears on TV. In fact, these anniversary events are the only times he ever appears in public.”

What about Mike Collins, we ask him.


Known but never seen

This, then, is the problem that faces the Apollo 11 crew. The nation cares about them every five years or so when a major anniversary of their mission rolls around. But in between, there is no interest.

Why? Is the Moon really so far away that humans pay it no regard whatsoever? It is, after all, still within sight, and therefore within mind according to the old proverb. And as people like Carratt demonstrate, broadcast television and the Internet make it easy to care about events that are taking place thousands of kilometres.

Walt Cunningham, a member of the first Apollo crew that flew into space, says that fear of the unknown is much more prevalent in present day humans than ever before. “We have allowed our country to turn into a risk-averse society,” he says. “It is reflected in NASA, it is reflected in government, it is reflected in every aspect of what we do today.”

Most of the Apollo alumni, including Cunningham, believe that humans still have the capacity for great achievements like the lunar landings. When they address audiences today, it often has the feeling of an easy sell. The phrase preaching to the choir tends to come to mind, as those who attend speeches by Apollo astronauts – or indeed who know their names at all – are already supporters of space exploration. To the rest of the world, they are known by their achievements, but are never actually seen.

Walking on the Moon

Especially in recent weeks, the term moonwalk has inspired thoughts of Michael Jackson, whose recent death has been much discussed on television, online, and wherever else things are discussed.

“The contrast really is clear, isn’t it?” asks Leslie Ann Baker. “Everyone has something to say about Michael Jackson. What his songs mean, what his actions mean, how he died. So many people have been expressing those sorts of opinions. But nobody is saying anything about the Moon landings.”

Baker is a columnist for the New England Journal of Observation, an independent local newspaper in the Boston, MA, USA area. The Journal has been deafeningly silent on the question of space travel, even in these last several months during an inquiry into NASA’s future plans ordered by US president Barack Obama. This study seems to be a natural opportunity to exchange opinions on the future direction of NASA: whether it should land on the Moon again by 2020 as directed by Obama’s predecessor George W Bush, whether it should proceed directly to Mars without stopping at the Moon, whether it should perhaps extend the Space Shuttle’s lifetime, whether it should partner with other nations that also have interest in long term space exploration, and many other questions.

We ask Baker how many times within the past year the Journal has released a special edition concentrating on space travel.

“None,” she says.

How many editorials have weighed in on the NASA review?

“None,” she says.

All right. How many times has the Journal reported on the International Space Station or Space Shuttle missions?

“None,” she says.

Has there been any mention at all of human space travel?

Baker says, “Well, when Walter Cronkite died the other day, we did mention that he had been one of the most important figures in network coverage of the Apollo programme. So there’s that.”

We postulate that the Journal appears not to care about whether humans travel in space.

“Our readers don’t care,” she says. “If they had been writing in begging us to talk about the Apollo 11 anniversary, we would have had no choice but to do it. But they didn’t, so we didn’t.”

Go for throttle up

However, in some quarters the topic is alive and well. For example, in Bronson, IL, USA, a group of space enthusiasts has come up with an idea that they believe will once again make space travel important and relevant.

“Here’s what I’ve got so far,” Brian Olmacher says, sitting at his computer. “‘On July 20, 1969, the most important thing that ever happened in the history of things happening happened. Humans from the planet Earth first set foot on the Moon. Since that landing and five others shortly thereafter, the feat has not been repeated. What is worse, humans seem to have forgotten that they can accomplish any goal, no matter how fantastic. Therefore, on July 20, 2009, we seek to remind you of this great feat of engineering and leadership by announcing the first annual Talk Like an Astronaut Day.’”

“A little wordy,” Janet McMyoken responds.

Francine Mladic adds, “Yeah, and what was that part at the beginning? ‘The most important thing that ever happened happened’?”

Olmacher repeats the first sentence.

“That part especially needs some work,” Mladic says. “Good start though.”

Olmacher and four friends are at McMyoken’s home. They are not the brightest students at Bronson-Haylbeck High School, but they are certainly the ones who care most about space travel. All five have attended Space Camp in Huntsville, AL, USA, and some have also attended Space Academy, a longer and more in depth version for high school students.

“The idea is simple,” Mladic tells us. “Talk Like a Pirate Day has become such a success in just a few years.”

“They even had a clue about it on Jeopardy!,” Kate Cherwidick says.

“Right. So we thought, why not Talk Like an Astronaut Day? It would raise awareness of space travel and maybe get some more kids excited about being an astronaut. I mean, not that Talk Like a Pirate Day has made kids excited about being pirates, but still.”

So how does one talk like an astronaut?

“It’s a lot of roger and copy, for instance,” Olmacher says. “You would say affirmative or negative instead of yes or no.”

“You get to make up acronyms for everything,” Mladic adds. Holding up her iPod, she continues, “Like this would be my Compressed Digital Audio Playback Device, or CDAPD. And this is the Fluffy Accommodation for Sleeping Toy, or FAST.”

Cherwidick says, “That’s a teddy bear.”

Additional small steps still required

Back in Diamond Bar, Shawn Carratt has said everything he believes he needs to say about the Beckham situation. He says that confrontation explains the difference between the Apollo astronauts and other celebrities, in a way that seems to echo Baker’s remarks about the New England Journal of Observation.

“People at that game really got worked up about his return,” he says. “Some were cheering, some were booing, but everyone cared one way or the other.”

Could it be that people really do care about space travel but simply have not been given enough of it?

“Maybe,” he concedes. “Like the Olympics. Americans like to see everything that happens during the Olympics, but in between we really don’t care about most of those sports. We like to see Mike Eruzione whenever the anniversary of the Miracle on Ice rolls around, but until then he can tend to his garden or do whatever the hell he does.”

Meanwhile, in Bronson, it seems that not all areas of Talk Like an Astronaut Day are meeting with approval from everyone. But there does appear to be one part that everyone likes.

McMyoken says, “We’re about to go see Brüno downtown. Ordinarily, I would just say, ‘Everyone ready to go?’, and everyone would say yes. But watch what happens now.”

As the others watch expectantly, she announces, “All right, we’re going around the room for go/no go to depart for the Motion Picture Playback Facility, or MPPF.”

“Go,” Olmacher answers.

“Go,” Cherwidick answers.

“Go,” Dee Washington answers.

“Go,” Mladic answers.

McMyoken says to the bunch, “All right. We are go to depart for the MPPF.”

They leave the room. The CDAPD is brought along, but the FAST remains behind.