Personal Confession: I am (still) a NASA Fanboy

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This past week, NASA showed us very detailed photos from the surface of Mars from InSight, part of a substantial mission to better understand the mysterious red planet.

In the agency’s own words:

“NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is a science-driven, technology-enabled study of Mars as a planetary system in order to understand:

  • the formation and early evolution of Mars as a planet
  • the history of geological and climate processes that have shaped Mars through time
  • the potential for Mars to have hosted life (its “biological potential”)
  • the future exploration of Mars by humans, and
  • how Mars compares to and contrasts with Earth.”

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All that is good and important, of course, but I’m going to be honest here. Even if we didn’t receive immediately valuable data from these missions into space, I’d still be squealing with delight. I love watching rockets take off. I love seeing pictures from space. I love seeing people float around in weightlessness, and have since I was a kid.

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Back in the 1960s, you might remember, NASA was in high gear. Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. I was absolutely glued to our little black-and-white TV watching every second I could. Like a lot of kids my age, I dreamed of donning the silvery flight suit of astronauts and blasting off into the starry dark.

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And when Apollo 11 took off for its rendezvous with the moon, well, I could hardly contain myself. I am likely one of many. According to NASA: “An estimated 530 million people watched Armstrong’s televised image and heard his voice describe the event as he took “…one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969.”

- UNDATED FILE PHOTO - Apollo 11 astronauts (L-R) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edward "Buzz A..

It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to describe to people not then alive what watching that event was like. To me, after many years and many missions, it was a glorious accomplishment but by no means did I think it would be the last. Just like the twelve-year-old fanboy I was, I envisioned continued space exploration going on forever. New missions. New technology. The solar system. The sun. Other suns and other worlds. An infinite pathway to the stars.

Not so much, as it turned out. You know, other priorities. Most people got bored with the repetitiveness of space missions and their relentless efficiency. A few more trips to the moon. All started to look the same. Once you’ve seen it, well, you know.

For me, missions like our exploration of Mars are thoroughly exciting. For the science, sure. But also because my fanboy self just loves to relive the time in 1969 when I and almost the entire world watched the absolute coolness of space exploration.

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It’s All In Your Head

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Years ago, when I was just a kid, I remember television coverage of someone finishing the swim across the English Channel. I remember the swimmer completing her singular feat, then wobbily stepping out of the water, still covered in lard, or whatever open-water swimmers wore in that long-ago era, to insulate themselves. A robe or towel was immediately wrapped around the swimmer’s slumped shoulders by attendants.

As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been someone walking on the moon, which I would, funny enough, watch on television but a few years later. Felt the same way about that, too. I knew in my bones I’d never actually accomplish either. Pretty much accepted I’d never even know anyone personally who would. Both feats seemed just that other-worldly to me, relative to my life expectations and experience.

When I was young, my own and my family’s life expectations for me were pretty, um, realistic. For the most part, my grandparents were dirt-poor immigrants when they came to America. My parents, although born here in the US, grew up during the Great Depression and had pie-in-the-sky life dreams wrung out of them early. Their guidance to me was to keep one’s life plans real.

This was not so much by the issuance of fiats but by the setting of expectations [dialogs below from real life]:

  • Purposeful education at elite academic institutions? “Sure.”
  • Playing in the NFL? “That’s for guys much bigger and better than you.”
  • Becoming an actor? “Wanna starve?”
  • Olympic bobsled trials? “Grow up, already.”

Life, however, is a funny thing. Sometimes it surprises you.

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I still don’t know anyone who’s walked on the moon (although I did just meet the brilliant director of NASA’s amazing Voyager program) but just last month, a pal of mine by the name of Arnie Oji swam the English Channel, together with some mates from San Francisco’s historic Dolphin Club.

Although, without question, an awesome accomplishment, it wasn’t, of course, an out-of-the-blue miracle, any more than playing professional-caliber sports is. Arnie and the other Dolphins had been open-water swimming and training for years in preparation for this Channel crossing.

The difference between my young and ‘realistic’ conception of possible and Arnie’s adult one is all in the mind; we do, as it turns out, make many of our own barriers.

Thanks so much, Arnie, for your recent real-world demonstration of that life principle.

2 - half way to Lanai