Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lunar Blues

Next week is yet another anniversary of the 1969 moon landing. Since 42 is not a particularly noteworthy number (pace Douglas Adams), it’s likely to pass with little more than a brief “on this day in 1969” mention at the end of a few nightly newscasts.

I remember the 1960s enthusiasm for all things space. Even data from Mariner 4 were broadcast live on primetime TV: the pictures of Mars slowly assembled line by line and we actually watched this. We were excited most by the manned flights. We (the general public) knew the names of the astronauts and the flight plan of every mission. It all culminated with Apollo 11. I watched the Eagle land live on television, as did a billion other people. Then there was an air of “OK, been there, done that.” Interest in manned flight ebbed and never really returned. The Apollo moon program was cut short so suddenly and casually that there were pieces left over.

Since then, robotic craft have continued to conduct interesting explorations, but humans have confined their ambitions to earth orbit. Every now and then, politicians in some spacefaring nation announce an intent to return to the moon, or to go to Mars, or to visit an asteroid. A little (by government standards) money is spent on the preliminary stages of the project, but then the whole thing quietly is shelved as the costs escalate. A recent leader in The Economist took note of the disinterest: "It is quite conceivable that 36,000km [geosynchronous orbit] will prove to be the limit of human ambition...It is likely that the Space Age is over." By "Space Age" the author meant human flight beyond earth orbit.

This may be wrong in the very long run (Buck Rogers does his thing in the 25th century after all), but at the moment it is true that taxpayers nowhere are in a mood to finance Flash or Buck. They aren’t likely to change their minds anytime soon. The dream never quite dies though.

My own flight to the moon was in 1958. OK, it was a simulated flight in the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. A quarter century later I took the very same rocket ship to Mars. At least I didn’t buy one of the tickets Pan Am sold (seriously) in the 1960s for passenger moon flights, redeemable as soon as seats were available. Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991. I don’t think the cost of its moon rockets was a factor.

Disney’s illusion ride to the moon was not the first by a long shot. An elaborate one was at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, two years before the Wright brothers flew 120 feet (36.5 m). There were seats for 30 passengers aboard the spaceship Luna. Luna rocked, shuddered, flashed and roared. Buffalo and then the whole earth appeared to recede below. A papier-mâché moon loomed overhead. After more light and sound effects, the ship landed on the moon. The passengers disembarked and walked through tunnels and grottoes as midgets in moonmen costumes romped around them. They were greeted by the Man in the Moon himself, who sat on his throne surrounded by luscious Moon Maidens. The passengers didn’t then fly back to earth on Luna though. They exited into a gift shop, which is another way of returning to earth. Frankly, it sounds much more fun than the Disney ride. Nowadays the fair is usually mentioned, when at all, for a grimmer reason: it was where President McKinley was shot.

Come to think of it, maybe we should return to the moon sooner rather than later – just in case there are any luscious Moon Maidens lurking in lunar tunnels and grottoes. Beats bringing back moon rocks.

1 comment:

  1. Got to experience the updated version of the Disney ride on our trip to Disneyworld last year: Mission Space. It was a blast! They simulate a bit of the G-forces for you as well as moving the vehicles in time with the images on the screen (similar to Star Tours). The result was a lot of fun.

    Keep in mind they do have "air sickness" bags included on the voyage, and some people do get ill with the spinning that is used to recreate the G-forces. Luckily neither I nor our fellow astronauts got ill.