The Space Program Changed Life on Earth

July 15, 1994|By ANTHONY R. CURTIS

Salisbury -- Americans have been radiating pride for 25 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but the warm glow is cooling. If we want our children to know the same pride we feel, we need to start now on a return trip to the moon.

The Apollo astronaut took his ''one small step for man'' on July 20, 1969. For years after his ''one giant leap for mankind,'' America was honored as the world's technology leader.

The Apollo achievements came at the right time to lift us from gloom. We were passing through a time of hot war and cold war, riots and political unrest, assassination and social change. Apollo let us turn away from trials and tribulations for a moment and look up triumphantly. We could see the moon and we could see men walking on the moon. What a boost for our spirits knowing we had send men there, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

Unfortunately, millions of Americans born since we landed on the moon missed the thrill we savored as Apollo 11 touched down in the lunar dust. With economic growth slow and federal budgets tight, our space program is taking it on the chin. NASA has not been able to keep up with inflation.

Yet, without America's space program, we would not have the digital imaging processes widely used by doctors in CAT scans, ultrasound images, cardiac angiography and advanced X-rays. We wouldn't have the lasers used in everything from CD players to the treatment of millions suffering clogged arteries. We wouldn't have the ability to observe Earth from space, thus no weather satellites and no appreciation of ravaged rain forests.

Communication satellites are products of space research. With out them, no CNN, no HBO, no Nickelodeon, and no sinking ships rescued by satellite trackers.

Microminiaturization is a result of the Apollo program. That work led to small computers with enough memory to control a manned space flight. Now we all have them in our homes and cars.

The insulating cushion of Apollo boots is used in today's sneakers. Apollo's Saturn-V rocket contributed turbopumps used in high-speed crew boats and offshore drilling supply ships. Spacesuits led to the cool suits worn by race-car drivers in temperatures up to 130 degrees. People without sweat glands use the same cool suit to stay alive.

Premature babies are warmed in cradles developed from astronaut helmet face-plates. A NASA sun finder guides underwater gear locating black boxes after airplane crashes. Apollo research led to low-cost waste-water treatment for rural communities. A satellite wire braces kids' teeth. Another space spin-off, the bulletproof jacket, has saved thousands of policemen.

You can't discount the force of competition which drove us to the moon. From the opening of the space age in 1957 there was one game, the Russian-American challenge. The Soviet Union scored points with numerous firsts -- first man in space, first woman, first spacewalk, first rendezvous -- but secrecy blocked world-wide respect. Our six manned landings on the moon, from 1969 to 1972, solidified America's image as the world's technology leader.

We don't have the Soviet Union to kick around any more, so global competition no longer drives our space program. And there is tough competition for every federal dollar. But the U.S. space program is worth fighting for. It serves our practical needs for defense conversion, science training and math education, new investment and global economic competition, even environmental protection.

Space also offers us hope and invites our dreams. Our work in space underscores our historic American identity as explorers, discoverers and adventurers. ''Not unlike earthbound explorers and adventurers before us, we search for yet-unknown treasures and try to unlock and understand the mysteries of nature,'' the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, has said. ''It is inherent in our kind to strive for a better understanding of life and a richer source of understanding.''

The last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, has said, ''The spirit of Apollo [is] the legacy of this country. It's the spirit of Apollo that will take us back to the moon and to Mars.''

If we abandon space we will become second-rate in our own eyes, in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of our children.

We must not only keep up, but move ahead toward the triumphs of the future. We must set goals and build as our experience exploring the unknown. We must return to the moon and head on out to Mars.

Anthony R. Curtis is a science writer and journalism instructor at Salisbury State University.

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