Doing battle with daily dragons

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Reflections on Being a Geek

Can I just say something quickly about being a geek?

The Space Shuttle went up yesterday for the first time since the Columbia disaster. For the first time in a long time, a whole lot of people were really interested in the space program again. The irony is, virtually no one watched the Columbia on it’s way up, but just about everyone sure as hell saw it come down. The days of families huddled around the television to watch a journey of discovery are long past, but everyone can’t get enough of a good tragedy.

Space stuff just rings my bell. Pure and simple; anything beyond the atmosphere totally kicks my ass. I’m sure my father is pleased that all of the hours he spent with me in front of the TV when I was small watching Nova, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Star Trek were not wasted. I was restricted to 2 hours a day of TV viewing. However, exceptions were made for science or nature programs. I think it was really just to prevent me from watching The Dukes of Hazzard.( I could watch Captain Kirk getting his shirt off with green slave girls, but Daisy Duke’s hot pants were a step too far.) Papapotamus molded me into a geek pretty early on.

So I had my nose pressed up against the TV screen yesterday with my fingers crossed to watch the Discovery go up. Just a year ago, Mama & Papapotamus, The Rock Star and I visited the Kennedy Space Centre and took the rather cheesy, yet informative “Behind the Scenes” tour that included the Assembly building and fairly close-up viewings of the launch pads.* Seeing the spot that the first mission to the moon began was quite humbling, to say the least.

The thing that impressed me most of all yesterday were the unbelievable images from the camera mounted on the large external fuel tank. It was extraordinary to get a Shuttle-eye-view of the coast of Florida falling away below, the moment when the sky turned from blue to black, the curvature of the Earth appearing and finally the moment the tank fell away, leaving the shuttle to swim away like a magnificent space whale. I don’t mind saying, it got my geeky little throat a bit choked up.

And yet, amongst the jubilant coverage, the whining from beneath began. “Why are we spending so much money on the space program?” “Shouldn’t we spend our money here on Earth where it can really benefit people?” “Why do we need manned space travel?”

My favourite answer is courtesy of Aaron Sorkin who wrote an episode of “The West Wing” titled, Galileo, in which NASA loses contact with a probe sent to the surface of Mars. White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne is having an argument with Chief of Staff Leo McGary’s daughter, Mallory, over the merit of continuing to fund space travel.

MALLORY
It cost 165 million dollars to lose the thing. How much more money
is it gonna cost to make sure you’re never gonna find it?

SAM
I don’t know, Mallory, but we certainly won’t divert any municipal tax dollars, which are always best spent on new hockey arenas.

MALLORY
No, it’s best spent feeding, housing and educating people.

SAM
There are a lot of hungry people in the world, Mal, and none of them are hungry because we went to the moon. None of them are colder, and certainly none of them are dumber ‘cause we went to the moon.

MALLORY
And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?

SAM
Yes.

MALLORY
Why?

SAM
‘Cause it’s next. We came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.

And so, yesterday, we took another step on the path of what’s next.

It’s a good time to be a geek.



* Other than the actual space stuff, the most interesting fact is that the whole complex is actually a nature reserve. About 15 minutes before a launch, a series of loud explosions occur to encourage any wildlife in the area to kindly piss off to be avoid being cooked or sucked into important mechanical orifices. I can only hope that the animals that live there (including manatees, alligators, herons, etc) believe that having the living pants scared out of you once or twice a year is worth living unmolested the rest of the year round.