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Dancing in the Stars

by Josh Zeisel

On March 17 and on March 27, the space shuttles Discovery and Enterprise were flown on the back of a modified Boeing 747 to their final retirement locations of Washington D.C. and New York City respectively. It was a sight that guided many eyes to the sky, but in the grand scheme of things, not many drifted from their TVs, iPhones, and computers.

I was not alive in 1961 when President Kennedy announced the United States would land a man on the moon, nor in 1969 when Apollo 11 finally did. This goal was based on the events of the Cold War, as no one was sure what was going to happen if the United States or the Soviet Union would ever drop a nuclear bomb on the other. (It is believed now that both countries would have never committed such an act out of fear of destroying the world.) It was nevertheless important at the time to prove one's power over the other.

The space race was officially started in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into a Low Earth Orbit, spreading fear throughout the US that the Soviet Union would be able to deploy nuclear missiles from an orbiting platform in space. Less than humanity's yearning to reach the cosmos, the Apollo missions were just another way to try to assert the US's dominance beyond the terrestrial.

The events of the Apollo missions were largely watched television events. The people of the US were enthralled with putting a man on the moon. As well they should have been. It isn't every day that a person steps on a celestial body outside of our atmosphere. Actually, the Apollo 13 splashdown (when the craft finally landed back on Earth) is the fourth most-watched special event watched in the United Kingdom, with 28.6 million viewers. This was a literally earth-shattering cultural event.

Landing a man on the moon was not just about beating the Soviets anymore. The pictures and videos that were coming back from the missions were something that no human had ever seen. One of the most recognizable set of images is the famous Earthrise, which captivated the American public. The US government flew to the moon for nuclear safety and accidentally caused a generation to be fascinated by science. NASA took advantage of this by gathering celestial samples and taking a plethora photographs and video.

The Apollo missions' most important legacy was that it legitimized NASA in the US government's eyes. More funding was directed towards the organization, which ultimately led to the most advanced piece of machinery ever created by the human race: the Space Shuttle. The incredibly tight tolerances and advanced computing necessary to make a shuttle successfully fly are astounding.

The advancements made included fly-by-wire, which allows control surfaces like ailerons and rudders to be controlled without the use of physical linkages. All the movement is computer controlled, sending signals to motors that actuate the surfaces when the pilot makes an input through the joystick. The computer system may not be the most advanced now (the computer – or phone – you are reading this on is probably more powerful) but there were four total computer systems to create backups that ultimately, after two failures, still allowed the shuttle to easily come back to land on Earth.

By the end of the Apollo missions, however, the American public lost interest in the moon landings. It just became the same thing over and over again. (Even though it wasn't. The later missions collected different samples, went to different landing zones, and included the implementation of the rover which allowed the astronauts to travel further from the lunar lander base).The fascination with space travel has never truly recovered.

Meanwhile, reality TV game shows like Dancing with the Stars and American Idol are hugely popular televisions events every year even though they are the same thing over and over again. (Even though they aren't. There are new people who dance new dances and sing new songs.) These types of monotonous events are appreciated much more by the public.

Space, technology, and science are not easy things to understand. The best way to explain them are by using equations; the language of science and engineering is math. The language of reality TV is sex. You can see the disadvantage. The contestants on these shows are at the least relatively attractive people, if not already supermodels, actors, or athletes. The public relevance of the contestants rises as they travel deeper into the contest. Meanwhile, humans are traveling deeper into space and no one seems to give a damn.

The space shuttles were an event based on science, but just the sight of the space shuttle on top of an already large aircraft is sexy (at least to me). Most people may not agree with that assessment, but in reality the layman was attracted to the event because they liked the sight, a sight that is not often seen by the average person. Sort of like the sight of a supermodel laying in one's bed.

NASA needs to find a way to build on such events (bed space notwithstanding). The space shuttles are no longer flying missions, but manned missions are still being flown. Much of the American public thought that with the retirement of the shuttles came the retirement of NASA, which is not nearly the case. There is always at least one person in the International Space Station (ISS) floating above us all the time. Private companies are building rockets to fly supplies – and soon men – to the ISS. Success comes from popularity. Take a look at the best computers or cars.

NASA can gain success and important funding by becoming popular again. Reality TV popular. The key is in creating that supermodel image. That could be a new spacecraft or even a recreation of Earthrise in full HD. The Earthrise is not something that is taught in schools and it would not be a surprise if many people did not know of its existence. Such images create interest because they peak the part of the mind that recognizes attraction. The key for these rocket scientists is to create an image that everyone wants to go to bed with.

Image courtesy of NASA Godard Space Flight Center

 

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Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]theinclusive.net