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Monday, July 20, 2009

Happy Mooniversary

Forty years ago today, the first manned spacecraft landed on the surface of another astronomical body. It was a testament to science and engineering, to the amazing results which can be achieved by a committed and concerted effort, and to the courage and fortitude of all the pioneers who had risked their lives to further our understanding of aeronautics and space exploration. Even after forty years, the moon landings continue to be a source of profound inspiration. Though I was not alive to witness the event itself, I would like to talk a little bit about the effect of the Apollo 11 mission on my life.

As a child, my first great intellectual love was the dinosaur. It started so early that I do not even know how it started. When I was two years old I informed my parents I wanted to be a paleontologist. Where I aquired that word still baffles my parents, but so it went. For the next eleven years I was sure I was going to devote my life to the study of dinosaurs. I hitched rides whenever I could to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, confounded my mother by selecting the Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs for my bedtime story (and insisting that she pronounce all the dinosaur names correctly), annoyed the school librarians by fact-checking the dinosaur books we had available (the biggest pet peeve I had was illustrations of Tyrannosaurus Rex with three digits on its arms), and collected a massive quantity of toy dinosaurs. As I began to enter my teen years, however, I realised that the prospect of spending weeks at a time wandering around deserts did not particularly appeal to me. I am sure there were other reasons as well, but that is oddly the most salient point that I remember thinking about. Regardless of the reasons, my childhood fixation on becoming a paleontologist was over. I no longer had an answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It was a distressing turn of events.

I briefly fixated on the idea of becoming a professional writer, but there were a number of problems with that (among them the question of whether or not my writing was good enough). What eventually saved me by providing a new focus was the idea of becoming an astronaut. It was not a particularly well thought out plan, but it gave me a goal to strive for. It did not take me long to discover I was both too tall and lacked adequate vision for the job, but the idea of the space program had still taken root in my mind. As I wrestled with the idea of where to go to university and what I should study, I settled on aerospace engineering at the University of Toronto. Even if I couldn't go into space myself, I figured aerospace engineering was my best chance to be working on the projects that sent people there. Of course, as it does if you are doing things right, my undergraduate experience changed many things about me. As I gradually became aware (helped in no small part by my girlfriend), what I delighted in the most about the idea of working at NASA was the joy of discovery. The idea of doing something that has never been done before to fundamentally alter our understanding of the world, the universe, and our place in it. That, to me, is what makes the moon landing so special. It embodies the ideals of science and engineering - of striving to achieve something monumental, beautiful, and unprecedented. While I eventually decided to focus my energies on exploring the underpinnings of intelligence rather than exploring space as I had originally thought I would, that does not diminish the inspirational quality of the moon landing. In the same way that the giant fossil skeletons of the Royal Tyrrell Museum offered a link to the ancient past for my impressionable young mind, the moon landing provided a tangible example of intellectual daring to guide my future aspirations. I hope everyone will take a moment today to think again about all the intellectual effort and all the industry exerted those forty years ago to do the seemingly impossible; to put a man on the moon. When it comes to inspiration, it is hard to get much better than that giant leap.

Note: The image displayed above was downloaded from NASA's image archives.


Robert said...

I too had an early fascination with dinosaurs. By the age of 8 or so (really that means most likely between the age of 7 and 11...all those years seem to run together) I was all about space exploration. There is a really good book, All We Did Was Fly To the Moon that i read around 1000 times in elementary and middle school. It is the only book I have read over and over and over again. I still have it today. In fact, it is laying right next to me.

I would give anything to go into space. I think going to Mars would rock!

Mozglubov said...

That sounds like a cool book... Perhaps when I do a book order this fall I shall see about adding it to the list.

Regarding going into space, every so often I go through elaborate mental fantasies of figuring out why some space agency might decide that they absolutely need me to go into space for some sort of expertise I have... The more I get into theoretical research, though, the more I realise that fantasy is fast dwindling in any sort of practical probability (a probability which already started rather low).

g said...

Glad you two are in your current fields. I wonder what the book did lay. And I had more hopes for Mozglubov than to have him write "like I had originally thought."