Sunday, August 3, 2014

Neil Armstrong, Project Apollo and Missed Opportunities

July 20, 2014 marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing and Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot on the moon. Partly because of the anniversary, I just finished reading Jay Barbree's biography of Mr. Armstrong, simply titled "Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight." Mr. Barbree is a veteran NBC News reporter who has covered every manned space launch. He was a personal friend of Mr. Armstrong.

I highly recommend Mr. Barbree's book. It fully chronicles the life of an American hero. From his days as a fighter pilot in Korea, a test pilot for the X-15 rocket plane (a real beast), an astronaut, and his post-astronaut career as a professor and as Vice-Chair of the Commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, Mr. Armstrong can be characterized as highly intelligent, cool under the highest pressure situations, and able to think through highly complex situations. He was regularly described by his fellow astronauts as the best pilot they ever saw. Through it all, he never sought publicity, shunned the public spotlight, and remained true to his Midwestern roots. He was a man of genuine modesty.

Although Mr. Barbree's biography of Mr. Armstrong is inspirational, the book also provides an inside view of the space race, a period of less than twelve years that began with the Soviet Union's launch of  the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 (to the dismay of the American populace) and ended with the Apollo 11 landing. The race really began in earnest with the Soviet Union's launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space on April 12, 1961, which was followed shortly by the U.S. launch of Alan Shepard on suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. Despite having a substantial initial lead, the Soviet Union never made it to the moon.

I was born in August 1957. The space race dominated my childhood. As a boy interested in airplanes and rockets, the astronauts were my heroes. I read everything I could get my hands on about space. I recall watching the Mercury launches on our family's old Magnavox black and white television. I watched the shadowy images of Neil Armstrong stepping on the lunar surface in July 1969, shortly before my twelfth birthday. 

A substantial portion of the U.S. population never experienced the space race or the moon landing. The median age of the U.S. population is about 38 years. I have not been able to find a statistic on the percentage of the population born after the moon landing in 1969, but it it clear that a majority of the population was born after that date. 

Because so many people did not experience what I experienced as a youth regarding the space race and Project Apollo, it is perhaps worth an attempt, however inadequate it may be, to try to put into words the excitement of those days. Despite the social upheaval of the decade, there was very little public dissent about the space race: The astronauts were heroes, catching the Soviet Union was necessary, and failure was simply not an option. 

Because of the space race, science, math and engineering were cool. Higher education was in vogue. The future appeared limitless. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, the country celebrated; actually, the world celebrated.

It is really impossible to put into perspective the achievements of NASA during the space race.  In slightly over eight years, NASA went from putting a single man in a suborbital flight to taking three men to the moon, landing two of them on the moon, and returning all three safely home. Think about it: All of this was accomplished in eight years. 

I have tried to think of something to put this into perspective for younger readers. Although nothing is really satisfactory, consider the iPhone. The iPhone was introduced in January 2007 and was rightly considered a great technological innovation. Now, over seven years later, Apple has introduced a series of incremental improvements, but the basic functionality of the original iPhone has not changed greatly. And to compare the iPhone to Project Apollo only demonstrates that what passes for innovation today cannot hold a candle to what happened during the space race.

Since Project Apollo, we have lost our way in space. The space shuttle, although impressive in some respects, was flawed and never achieved its original goals. Further, it was not able to do anything other than put astronauts and cargo in low earth orbit. Since the last space shuttle flight in July 2011, we have been unable to put astronauts in space, and have been reduced to hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets, a system that uses decades-old technology. (At least the Russians were smart enough to keep the old technology available in the absence of a more modern replacement).

The current state of our space program should be a national embarrassment. Before his death, Mr. Armstrong testified before Congress. He tried to explain the need to return to the moon as a precursor to a mission to Mars. Unfortunately, the counsel of Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues has been ignored.

There is a great deal of discussion today about the need to increase funding for "STEM" initiatives, referring to science, technology, engineering and math, and to increase student interest in these important disciplines. Many others have pointed out the importance of national preeminence in these disciplines to technological innovation, the economy, and even national security.

The question is how to motivate students to pursue these important disciplines. We have an obvious example: On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy made his famous speech calling for a journey to the moon and back by the end of the decade: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The goal being stated, NASA accomplished it, supported by a legion of scientists and engineers. The entire venture provided high-skilled, high-paying jobs to tens of thousands, with spin-off benefits to the economy that continue to this day, although the effect is waning. 

The main objection to the manned space program has been cost. Consider this: The cost of Project Apollo in 2008 dollars was $98 billion according to one analysis. In 2009, the U.S. spent $800 billion on an ill-considered economic stimulus that has yielded few concrete benefits. What would have happened if instead--or simply as part of the stimulus--President Obama had called for a national effort to return to the moon by 2016 (which would have allowed same time that it took NASA to accomplish the same goal decades ago) and to land man on Mars by 2025, and had asked Congress to fund it? Instead of talking about "STEM," there would be a national initiative establishing a clear goal that, to use President Kennedy's words, would "organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."  Even more importantly, it would have made STEM cool again. And it sure would have helped the economy.

Unfortunately, we do not have leaders with President Kennedy's vision. Equally unfortunately, heroes such as Mr. Armstrong had to live their final days witnessing our country basically throwing away their accomplishments and legacy. It had to be an extreme disappointment to Mr. Armstrong, just as it must continue to disappoint the remaining aging heroes who formed the team that put a man on the moon.

We need to find our way back to space.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr.: An Epilogue, a Small Family Reunion, and a Mystery Solved

On Memorial Day 2013, I wrote a post regarding my uncle, Gilbert N. Caudle, Jr.  My uncle, a Master Sergeant in the Marines, died in a helicopter crash in Korea in 1953 before I was born. My mother always referred to her brother as "Don," which, as the original post noted, was a family mystery. We could not figure out how you get "Don" from "Gilbert, Jr." 

As the original post explained, I had been able to piece together more about my uncle's life from the Internet--including the fact he had been married shortly before his death--than we had learned from family history. The blog post concluded by asking anyone with information about Gilbert, Jr. (or Don) to contact me. However, that request felt much like putting a note in a bottle and casting it into the Pacific Ocean.

Much to my surprise, several months after writing the post, I received an email from a young Marine, Greg Holt. Greg had seen my post and it had prompted him to write. Greg is the great grandson of my mother's much older sister, Mildred. Greg had grown up hearing his grandfather Jerry (and to some extent Mildred) tell stories about my uncles Gilbert, Jr. (or Don) and Bill, especially involving their service in the Marines.

Greg is currently posted in Germany. I'm not exactly sure what the job title is, but Greg and his unit essentially serve as a concierge for injured U.S. service men and women being treated at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Kaiserslautern. Greg helps our injured soldiers get the care and benefits to which they are entitled, and also helps make travel arrangements for the families of those who are so seriously injured they cannot travel. Interestingly, many more injuries occur in regular day-to-day activities than in combat.

Greg and his wife Amanda just had their first child, a daughter named Harper. Amanda and Harper are not able to live permanently with Greg in Germany, but are able to make frequent visits. 

I happen to do a lot of work for clients from Germany, and try to make a business trip to Germany at least once a year. This May, I traveled to Germany, flying into Dusseldorf. Greg, Amanda and Harper made the trip to Dusseldorf from Kaiserslautern and we spent a very enjoyable afternoon in the "Altstadt" (old part of the city), which happened to be be during a quirky event called "Japan Day."

Greg told me some stories about my uncle and even had some memorabilia from my uncles. It felt like the proverbial "message in a bottle" had been answered in full. Well, almost in full. Greg had no idea why my mother referred to her brother as "Don."

This is a photo of Greg, Amanda and Harper in Dusseldorf.

I had been meaning to post an update regarding my uncle since returning from Germany in late May. The fact that it waited until the Fourth of July seems appropriate, as was the fact that our family reunion of sorts in Dusseldorf was just before Memorial Day. 

Not only is it appropriate to remember my uncles' service, it turns out that just about everyone in Greg's family (including his sister) serves or has served in the military or has been a military spouse. Thank you to all of them, and thanks to all our service men and women on our Nation's birthday. 

Having just about given up on the "Don" mystery, I received an email from Greg this week. Greg had spoken to his grandfather Jerry (my first cousin) and Jerry knew the answer. When Gilbert, Jr. was stationed at the Marine Air Station in El Toro south of Los Angeles, Gilbert, Jr. apparently had quite a social life, including going out with some Hollywood actresses. Thus, the family began calling him "the Don Juan of the West Coast." My mother would have only been thirteen at the time, so maybe she didn't get the joke. Or maybe Gilbert, Jr. took to the nickname. In any event, mystery solved.

This story helped bring the uncle I never knew to life. It was good to hear there were good times before his untimely death. Greg's family has other photos of my uncles, including some photos of Don clowning around with his Marine buddies in the Pacific. When Greg gets back to the States, he can hopefully get those scanned and emailed. 

At the time of the original post, no one in my immediate family knew where Don was buried. We had assumed he was probably interred in Korea. Greg told me Don was in fact buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A photo of Don's grave marker is available on the Arlington National Cemetery website.

I'm glad that my uncle was brought home. It is sad that my mother apparently did not know where her brother was buried, but I think she would be happy that her brother's remains were interred on American soil at the Nation's best-known military cemetery. I think she would also have been delighted about the small family reunion in Germany with such a nice young man and his family.

As I reflect on this somewhat remarkable--at least to me--series of events, the one thing that stands out is how little my part of the family knew about my uncle. It is so easy to keep in touch now with cheap long distance, email, and social media. It was not easy to do so in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and for much of the rest of the 20th Century. As my parents raised three boys in the Leave It to Beaver and Brady Bunch era, moving us around the country as Dad chased his dream job, it was difficult to keep in touch, and ties to the past faded. 

Still, family history is important, and I'm so glad that Greg saw my post and reached out. It has been great learning more about my lost uncle, as well as about Greg and his side of the family. Although one mystery has been solved, another has come to light. I'm not sure why "Tennessee" is on Don's grave marker. Maybe Greg can help unravel that one, too.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"How We Lost Atlanta": A Little Perspective, Please

For the past 48 hours, Metropolitan Atlanta has been shut down due to what some have asserted is "two inches of snow."  Thousands of residents have spent the night in their cars, worried about loved ones not able to get home, and generally have had their lives disrupted. And now the blame game has begun. As someone who has made the area home for over 30 years, here are a few observations.

1. It's ice, not snow. Northerners love to say that Atlantans cannot drive in snow, which is ironic given that about half the folks who live here came from northern climes. The problem isn't snow. The problem is ice. During a winter weather event here, the temperatures tend to hover around freezing or just above during the day. We often get freezing rain. When we get snow, and even if the temperatures are below freezing, it tends to melt when it hits the ground. When the water freezes as the sun goes down, you end up with a sheet of ice, or, just as bad, black ice. I do not know anyone who can drive on a hockey rink.

2. Critiques over urban sprawl are interesting, but they are not going to change anything. Rebecca Burns, an Atlantan, wrote an interesting piece in Politico about the storm. Ms. Burns' history of Atlanta -- including her observations about the fact that metro Atlanta is actually a quilt of many towns and counties, its rejection of expanded mass transit, and its love of the automobile -- is quite accurate. That said, those observations and a critique of urban sprawl are not going to change anything, at least in the near to intermediate future.

Metro Atlanta is not going to become a European-style city where everyone lives downtown and mass transit is available everywhere. That said, the area has a lot going for it, including great universities, fantastic restaurants, world-class businesses and a great lifestyle. It has a low cost of living and young people can actually afford to buy houses.  Most of the time, the weather is good and is a reason why many of us live here. This weekend, temperatures are forecast to be in the 60s. If our mass transit is not up to what some would like and our traffic is bad (which it is), that is a relatively small price for living in a great area. No place is perfect. 

By the way, it is possible to live without a car in Atlanta. Several of my friends have recently moved to Midtown where they also work, and tell me they rarely use their car and are even thinking about going "car-less." However, you have to plan for such a lifestyle, and it does limit your choices.

3. This one was unexpected. If you have lived through more than a couple of winters in Atlanta, you know that things shut down quickly with the prediction of bad weather. Schools and businesses will close early. Somewhat comical runs on grocery stores are the norm. If anything, the tendency is to be too cautious. We know bad weather shuts down the city, we know the danger of ice, and we know to stay off the roads. 

The weather prediction Tuesday morning was that the storm would hit the Southern suburbs and areas south toward Macon, but would miss the vast majority of of the metro area. Flurries were predicted in the northern suburbs. Why did the fiasco happen? Because most everyone was at work and school assuming that there was no problem. When it became apparent around noon (give or take an hour) that the predictions were wrong, everyone headed out at once, as Ms. Burns correctly notes in her article. That and the rapidly worsening weather created the problem.

Was this metro Atlanta's shining hour? Of course not. Do Governor Deal and Mayor Reed wish they had a "do over"? Of course they do. Do the meteorologists? No doubt. Hindsight is always 20/20. We live our lives based on making reasonable assumptions. It was reasonable for people to go to work on Tuesday morning and it was reasonable to assume the storm would largely miss the metro area. 

Can we do better? Yes, but no one should be vilified over this.