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Misplaced Nostalgia

JOHN MORRISS

EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

In contrast to their parents and grandparents who lived through two World Wars, Canadian baby boomers have lived a charmed life, though not one without some trauma. Practising nuclear-bomb evacuation drills to our school’s mud-floored crawl space during the Cuban Missile Crisis had a certain psychological effect, especially considering that there was no food or water to last the three weeks we were supposed to wait until we emerged to a flattened and uninhabitable world.

However that anxiety in 1962 paled in comparison to the terror five years earlier, when children awoke to a radio newscast featuring a series of staticy beeps. “The Russians” had launched Sputnik, the first satellite. Near panic ensued. Apparently a “Space Race” was on, and if “we” didn’t buckle down, the Dreaded Reds were going to win it. According to the pundits of the day, the reason they were already ahead in the Space Race was that their education was far superior to ours, and that Soviet children spent far more school hours per day, six days per week, with more homework and no summer holidays. Or so we were told. If we wanted to avoid being taken over by Commies, we’d have to follow suit.

Now that was terrifying.

Sighs of relief were breathed when “we” won the Space Race with the first moon landing, and as we’ve seen, the Soviet educational system was not such a powerhouse after all. (Similar child torture about ending summer holidays was inflicted during the 1970s, when Japan was held up as the model of economic success).

Mind you, the Soviets may have had the last laugh after all, as they never even tried to go to the moon, which raises the question of whether there was ever a race at all. Perhaps they better appreciated the other parental admonition of the time – “Just because Jimmy jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”

Indeed, there was no particular reason to go to the moon other than to get there first, but as the anniversary of the first landing is celebrated 40 years later, aging boomers are still trotting out tired clichés about the need for a renewed space program. Some even propose sending humans to Mars. Thanks to unmanned missions with a shaky success rate, we already know there’s nothing much there, but apparently sending humans on an 18-month mission to suffer almost certain permanent physical and mental damage is considered a worthy scientific objective. Chances of survival are about the same as Jimmy’s in jumping off the cliff, but at least that doesn’t cost hundreds of billions.

Ah, but there are the “Spinoff benefits of the space program,” another boomer relic along the lines of “As seen on TV.” While there are clear benefits in communication and Earth observation from relatively inexpensive satellites, is there really an appreciable benefit from the extra cost and danger of human-conducted experiments in space?

Obviously, technological advances would have continued without going to the moon – in fact they might have come sooner had the space program resources been diverted elsewhere.

Most of us are now satisfied with getting our space kicks from “Star Trek” reruns, but there are still some who don’t laugh when they hear the term “flux capacitor” and actually take this stuff seriously, including NASA head Michael Griffin. “(T)he goal isn’t just scientific exploration… it’s also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system… one day, I don’t know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon… we may have people making habitats on asteroids… I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond.”

This is someone who doesn’t realize that Buck Rogers was just a comic book. Should taxpayers be funding “scientists” who see the future of humanity as living in windowless environments with no atmosphere and no other living creatures, and where you can only go outside in a spacesuit for protection from lethal temperatures and radiation?

The hoopla over the 40th anniversary of the moon landing is nothing but misplaced nostalgia for an unpleasant time when we really did need to worry about “The Bomb,” and the U. S. was trying to prove its superiority to the “Red Menace.”

At least in that regard, the world today is a better place, and one where we should know more about diverting scientific resources to where they really matter. For instance, it’s now said there are more organisms in a gram of soil than human beings on Earth. We’re only just learning about them, and what their interactions mean to the species who depend on them for food.

It’s time to stop giving money to those designing lifeboats from a failing world. Farmers, and those who work with them, should take up the challenge of convincing governments and fellow citizens that future is still here on Earth, and the next exciting frontier for exploration is not the dead infinity of space, but the life growing in and from the precious few inches of topsoil under our feet. [email protected]

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