Luncheon Keynote Address, Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Members of the Board, former and current astronauts, and other distinguished guests, I would like to share some thoughts I have collected throughout my life on what it takes to be inspired. We would all agree that it is best to collect sources of inspiration into a convenient spot for all to experience, such as this Center for Space Education, but one occasionally finds sources in unlikely places…
With your permission, I want to begin by telling you how I received some inspiration from a single episode of the television show I Dream of Jeannie. You may remember that Major Nelson was an astronaut who found a bottle that had washed ashore on some island near where he landed from one of his space missions. Of course he rubs the bottle (to clean it) and out pops a beautiful mischievous genie named Jeannie who grants him several television seasons worth of wishes. I am reminded of the show, of course, because Major Nelson was supposed to have lived in the nearby town of Cocoa Beach. Anyhow, in one particular episode, Jeannie wanted to throw a birthday party for Major Nelson. She asks permission to invite some of her friends. He says
yes, not really thinking what sort of friends a Jeannie might keep. Major Nelson returns home from work that day only to find collected in his house the likes of Cleopatra, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, and other historical luminaries.
I have since published a question-and-answer book on the universe that is written through a character pen-name who has lived for all of Earth history as an observer of scientific discovery. When someone writes, for example, to ask about gravity, the character might “recall” having a chat with Isaac Newton in Newton’s back yard where Newton, himself, explains the answer. I proudly confess that this entire literary motif was directly inspired by that single episode of I Dream of Jeannie with her astronaut-master in Cocoa Beach.
Quite apart from TV sitcoms, I think it can be convincingly argued that nothing in this world has the power to inspire forward thinking and visions of the future the way the space program can. The golden era of space exploration was, no doubt the 1960s, but at that time, the meaning and significance of the space program was somewhat muddled in many urban centers due to the widespread poverty, urban riots, and poor educational systems. In the 1990s, three decades later, the meaning and significance of the space program remains muddled in many urban centers due to widespread poverty, urban riots, and poor educational systems. But there is a fundamental difference. In the 1960s the technology of the future was something that everybody looked forward to. I am not convinced that the same strength of emotions and hope exist today.
For example, I remember, the day and the moment, when the Apollo 11 astronauts first landed on the Moon. The landing was, of course, one of technology’s greatest moments. But at eleven years of age, I found myself to be somewhat indifferent to the event. I was indifferent not because I couldn’t appreciate the event’s rightful place in human history, but because I had every reason to believe that trips to the Moon would become a monthly procession. As a child of the 1960s, this expectation of the future guided my aspirations, my hopes, and my dreams. It started with President Kennedy’s speech where he declared that before the decade is over we will send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth. Then there was the ongoing space program, with each mission more ambitious than the next. And then, of course, there was Stanley Kubrick’s visionary film 2001 A Space Odyssey, with its space stations and Moon bases. When you add all this together, it was perfectly clear to me that voyages to the Moon were simply the next step. Little did I know that they were to become our last steps. In retrospect, I now regret that I did not feel more emotion back on July 20, 1969. I should have reveled in the landing as the singular achievement that it turned out to be. But is the vision dead? Is it dying? Or is it just dormant? Are we left with little to inspire the next generation?
Let us not kid ourselves. The funding stream for the space program had been primarily defense-driven. Cosmic dreams, and the innate human desire to explore the unknown were of lesser significance. But let’s think about the word “defense” for a moment. When I think of “defense” I think of the want or the need to protect yourself from harm. Given that at the moment, the United States is, as best as I can surmise, under relatively little risk of attack, we ought to interpret the word “defense” to mean something far more important than armies and arsenals. It should mean the defense of the human species, itself.
As a research astrophysicist it is my obligation to tell you that in twenty-six hours the equivalent energy to 200,000 megatons of TNT will be deposited in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere as comet Shoemaker-Levy-9 slams into the planet’s back-side. Some smaller pieces of debris are impacting as I speak. This is the sort of collision where, if it happened on Earth, it would very likely be responsible for the abrupt extinction of the human species.
Now if we retain “defense of the human species” as a mission theme then we have a genuine cosmic vision to share with today’s eleven year olds—they can be charged with saving life as we know it. The most effective ways to do this are 1) to acquire the most thorough understanding of Earth’s climate and ecosystem that we possibly can, which will minimize risk of self destruction, and 2) to colonize space in as many places as possible, which will proportionally reduce the chance of species annihilation from a collision between Earth and a comet or asteroid.
The fossil record is teeming with extinct species—species of life that had thrived for far longer than the current Earth-tenure of Homo Sapiens. Dinosaurs are in this list. They are extinct today because they did not build spacecrafts. Was it because the funds were not available? Maybe. But I doubt it. I’d bet it was because their brains were only about this [ ] big. Well, there would be no greater tragedy in the history of life in the universe than humans becoming extinct not because they lacked the brain power to build interplanetary spacecrafts, not because they lacked a space program, but because the human species itself, chose not to fund such a survival plan.
Maybe I am naïve. Maybe I am an idealist. But I think we can still impart visions of the future in the aspirations of the next generation. Let us never underestimate the value of an educational institution with a mission. I know, because I am the product of one. I rose from being an urban child of the 1960s to become one of the youngest members of the Board of Directors of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation—and to become the person who is now addressing this distinguished audience. The youth of today need the visions of space exploration that many of us took for granted in the 1960s. For this we must rely on our teachers and on institutions such as the Center for Space Education. And if you have lost all hope in the youth of today, then it may be more of a statement about your patience level than about the actual state of the next generation. Consider the following:
The earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind parents… and it is evident that the end of the world is approaching fast.
When I was a student in elementary school and junior high school in New York City, I eagerly attended monthly public lectures given by visiting experts on various topics on the universe at the Hayden Planetarium. The speakers were so smart and knew so much that I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Well, fifteen years later, I returned to the Planetarium to deliver an invited public lecture of the same monthly series that I had attended as a student. And as though I had passed through some sort of loop in the space-time continuum, a 12-year-old student walked up to me after my lecture and asked,
What do I need to do to be just like you? At that point I knew that I had helped to plant a dream in someone else the way others before had planted a dream in me, which reminds me of selected lines from poems by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does is dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Two of the many missions of the Center for Space Education will be to train teachers and inspire students. I believe that there is no greater compliment that a teacher (or an institution) can receive than the comment “you inspired me—you inspired me to learn more,” “…to read more,” “…to become an astronaut,” “…to become a scientist,” or “…to not drop out of school.” Because in the end, personal triumphs—however they are defined for the individual—must come from within. Let it be known that this investment in the next generation’s awareness and sensitivity to space exploration is our species’ life insurance policy. It may just be our only hope for the future.