I was in first grade when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Somehow, I managed to get an 8x10 color photograph of the seven Challenger astronauts, which I kept on my bedroom wall long into my teenage years. In retrospect, it probably influenced my eventual decision to pursue failure analysis and prevention as a career.
Both before and after the Challenger accident, I followed the U.S. and Soviet space programs the way some kids followed sports teams. All kinds of exciting things were happening in space exploration. Just a week before the explosion, I had been at the VLA in New Mexico, where my dad worked, watching the first images of Uranus beamed back by the Voyager 2 probe. A couple months later, an armada of Soviet, European, and Japanese space probes observed Halley's comet at close range. Meanwhile, I closely followed the U.S. efforts to return the space shuttle to flight, which culminated in the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery two years later.
Just as many, if not more, exciting things are happening today. The Curiosity rover is making incredible discoveries on the surface of Mars, the International Space Station will be getting a new crew later this month, the Cassini-Huygens probe is exploring the moons of Saturn, and the New Horizons probe is on its way to Pluto.
Why isn't there more public excitement about space exploration today? What can we do to foster this kind of excitement?
I agree, Al. I wonder how much overblown media coverage has made us all a bit jaded, and perhaps contributed to the lack of enthusiasm. For instance, the press managed to turn "finds conditions once suited for ancient life on Mars" into "finds evidence of ancient life on Mars" or even "finds life on Mars". Argh! That's not NASA PR--that's media distortion.
Thanks Chuck. I grew up with Apollo. It became just another everyday thing for Americans. But manned flight (including Apollo: Grissom, White, Chaffee) wasn't without risk and loss. You are correct, that without a face to give it something we can connect to, sending robots into space just isn't inspiring in the same way. Perhaps a debate for another article (but apropos considering our American post-manned flight era).
I'm lucky enough to have seen Skylab launch on a Saturn V from probably 10+ miles away. I can still feel it in my chest. There were a huge number of people camped out to see it. If my luck holds out I'll see another launch this Tuesday. I'm curious to see if a launch is still a large public draw.
No apologies necessary, 3drob. I agree with your "rant." Good points, all. By the way, I wasn't waxing nostalgic for the old days -- I was waxing nostalgic for the really old days. Those were the names of Mercury astronauts, who came before Gemini astronauts, who came before Apollo.
Completely agree that more needs to be done to create value that links money spent on these kinds of programs, and results which justrify the investments. We know that the focus on science and engineering is important, but we need to get back to the successes that these programs produced in the past.
Excellent points Chuck. But perhaps waxing nostalgic of the old Apollo days and personalities is a good example of how we only tend to remember the good stuff. Only the first Apollo mission was of any cultural importance. The rest of the program was mind bogglingly brave and amazing, but largely un-noticed. Only the luck (both bad and good) of Apollo 13 made anyone take notice again after the first landing. We are jaded as a society, and to be blunt, the heroes in the Apollo program just made it look easy and normal (it was anything but).
Now, there is nothing left of the news media (it's all entertainment). Our national leaders aren't leading. Public schools are not making the grade. Science and Engineering are hard curriculums in college and under-rewarded in industry (compared to the business degrees) and seen by the public as, well, boring and nerdy. Ironically, it's Engineering and Science that have given us EVERYTHING (our standard of living, our safety in a dangerous world, our ability to eat well and live so long).
It's not like this in other countries, and we will soon be surpassed by those in the world that are raising the next generation to invent and capitalize on technology, not just use it.
Sorry for the rant, but we do need to figure this out. Personally, stories like this still give me goose bumps.
For the question about why isn't there more excitement about the rover doing this mining research, I can point to two things that I see. First, none of those responsible for this incredible design made a very big deal about how complex it is, or about how much effort was required. So the technologicly illiterate population assume that it was no harder than their cell phones and smart phones. The second reason is that a huge portion of the population is not able to focus their attention on it long enough to even grasp what is going on. I observe this daily, that many, or even most, of the somewhat younger generations are simply not trained to focus attention on anything for more than a second or two. And how in the world can a person understand something as complex as collecting a sample core from a rock if they are not able to pay attention for more than two seconds? Just look around and you will see what I am talking about.
You may be onto something, Chuck. We still have astronauts on the International Space Station and the Shuttle program is not very ancient history. The recent jump by Felix Baumgartner got lots of press and coverage, especially through the social networks and even spawned a meme or two. Perhaps it was Red Bull's marketing and promotion that was key. I believe it was comedian Robert Klein that said he admired Neil Armstrong's restraint when his boot first touched the moon. Klein would have been tempted to shout "Coca-Cola!". Maybe we need a little more commercial sponsorship of space.