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Commentary: Congressman Billybob sez

  |   Feb. 5, 2003 at 6:45 PM
HIGHLANDS, N.C., Feb. 5 (UPI) -- This here's the 336th Report ta the Folks Back Home from the (More er Less) Honorable Billybob, cyberCongressman from Western Carolina.

The main subjeck ov las week was, ov course, the loss ov the Shuttle Columbia, with all hands. So I wanna rat about it.

However, ma able assistant, J. Armor, Esq., wazza student ov history n lit'rature, way back when. So I'll turn this over ta him.

Those in Peril on the Sea

The Navy Hymn was written in 1860, by a man about to sail for America. Yet its plea for survival on the seas would have been well familiar to the first colonists who came to America. "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" asked God's blessing "for those in peril on the sea." For all the colonists, the dangers of the ocean were no mere abstraction. All of them were survivors of such journeys. All had friends or family who had died on these journeys. All knew of others who had perished on other ships, which began the journey but never arrived.

What does this have to do with the loss of the Shuttle Columbia with all hands? It is squarely on point about the future of the space program.

As I watched the television coverage all day Saturday, several reporters on every network posed these two questions to one guest/victim or another. They were, "Does this mean the end of the shuttle program? Or the space program?" By the end of the weekend, most national newspapers had run articles which raised the same two questions, and suggested that the manned space program might be killed by this disaster.

To their credit, the print media did not obsess over the possible death of the manned space program to the degree the TV news services did. The prime imperative of print media are not yet, not quite, what it is on TV, "If it bleeds, it leads." The answer about the possible death of space exploration came first from a handful of knowledgeable commentators on Saturday, and from a few columnists since then, especially Charles Krauthammer. The answer to the question is, "Of course not."

We human beings were born to explore our environment. We have been searching out new frontiers since the Phoenicians recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform their journeys of commerce all over the Mediterranean. Since the Egyptians (possibly) reached central America on reed boats. Since the Chinese (possibly) reached what is now Mexico, before the Incas. Since the Vikings crossed the North Atlantic (now established) to what is now Nova Scotia.

And, beyond the explorers, we have turned peril into commerce and profit. Men have always gone "down to the sea in ships." And they were less likely to return safely from those ventures than the astronauts who have boarded the 113 shuttle flights that have flown so far.

Decades ago, I visited the three-century-old cemetery in Delaware where John Dickinson lies buried. Dickinson is one of my heroes. He served as President of Pennsylvania, and later President of Delaware. He was the President of the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which failed for lack of a quorum but issued the invitation to all states that resulted in the Philadelphia Convention a year later. There, delegates from eleven states wrote the Constitution of the United States. But I digress.

While visiting the grave of John Dickinson, I took time to read the other gravestones, for others who had died in the time of the Revolution. There were several graves that gave a name, said "Lost at Sea," and gave the date --- precise or approximate --- that the ship had sunk. I'm certain that all other cemeteries that date back that far have similar graves containing no body, just a stone to remember a sailor.

And it is not just on the sea that Americans have lost their lives in the process of exploration, in their efforts to find new opportunities and create new lives. Estimates are that at least twenty percent of all those who set out in Conestoga wagons, on horseback, or even on foot, to go west and resettle, lost their lives before reaching their destinations a year or so later. Especially for the elderly and the young, but sometimes for all parties involved in a wagon train, the trail to opportunity led only to an unmarked grave.

Most Americans, like most citizens of all nations, seek comfort, predictability and safety. This is no surprise; it is a natural product of human nature. But some who are more adventuresome, or more restless, or are driven by desperate circumstances to seek new opportunities despite the risk, have taken chances. This, too, is a matter of human nature.

Sometimes it is by deliberate choice and knowing all the risks, like the whaling fleets that sailed out of New England. That, by the way, was classic venture capitalism. I've read some of the contracts that sailors signed before they sailed. Everyone from the captain to the lowly cabin boy had a specified share of the profits of the voyage.

Others who took risks and ventured forth had no concept whatsoever of their destination or the odds they faced. The Mongols who came across the Bering Straits and into the (perhaps) unpopulated land of North America had no idea where they were headed, what they would find, or that they would be the progenitors of most of the Indian tribes of North America.

The point is simple and inexorable. Any student of the migrations and occupations of mankind throughout history would understand it. It is this: whatever frontiers man perceives, men and women will seek to cross. The lineage of the astronauts begins for sure with the Phoenicians. Perhaps it began earlier, with the Egyptians and the Chinese.

Mallory's answer to the question "Why did you climb Mount Everest?" rings down through the years: "Because it is there."

We have long since conquered the oceans. We have long since conquered the air. We have only just begun our exploration of the universe that lies beyond our Earth. In the 21st century, space occupies the same place in the future of man that the seas occupied in most of recorded history.

We will colonize the Moon. In time, we will colonize Mars. And eventually, we will venture outside our solar system, in voyages that will be every bit the equivalent of the first colonists in the New World. Men and women will go up to this "sea" in ships, they will "sail" from ports near the equator, knowing that they can never return to their homes and families.

Ah, but what new worlds will they discover when they make that journey? Will they reach the end of that journey? Or will it be their children, or their children's children, who complete the journey they began?

Due to both the nature of man, and the sense of adventure expressed in the memorable "Star Trek" phrase with its split infinitive, this will finally come true. It will be the task of those true astronauts, ones who really aim for the stars rather than low-Earth orbit as far from here as New York from Philadelphia, to fulfill this promise: "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

It is utter nonsense to ask whether the tragic deaths of an additional seven able and dedicated men and women will somehow stop the shuttle program, or the space program. It may, and should, cause changes in the program to make it a little safer, a bit more forgiving. There were changes after the Shuttle Challenger blew up. There was a major change after three astronauts burned to death on the pad in the Apollo program. (A pure oxygen atmosphere was much easier to design and operate --- but a single spark from any piece of equipment meant death for all concerned).

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," to a meeting of the American Historical Association. He argued, persuasively, that the American frontier in the west shaped the very character of Americans, even affecting by social osmosis the character of those Americans who did not go west. His conclusion was that America would be the worse for the inevitable closing of that era of our national life. His conclusion was right then, but is wrong today.

We have a new frontier, not a political slogan but a real one. It is the limitless universe, beyond the grip of this small rock on which all men have lived to date. Will the deaths of a few dedicated and excellent human beings turn us aside from that destiny? Will America in particular turn its back on the greatest adventure in the history of the human race?

No way. Absolutely not.

In the words of Buzz Lightyear, we will go "to infinity and beyond." And Americans, because frontiers are more in our nature than any others on this planet, will lead the way. It is not for nothing that we are called pioneers. But we will not go alone. As with the crew of Columbia, men and woman of dedication, ability and adventure, from other nations, will join that effort.

We WILL go up to that sea in ships. Most will return. Some will die in the effort. And some will leave, never to return. But we will eventually hear back from those "forever travelers" as the human race spreads out into our galaxy, and someday even beyond that.

It is not a matter of honoring the memory of those who died. That is a worthy purpose, but there is a much greater imperative at work. It is in our nature that the best and brightest of us will take these risks, and will cross this new Cumberland Gap into new worlds.

We will continue to "slip the surly bonds of Earth." Again, and again, and again. The only thing that could stop it is if we humans make the mistake of bombing ourselves back to the Stone Age, all across the planet. And if we are stupid enough to do that, even that will not end the space program. It will only delay it for a few thousand years, until we can rebuild our technology to where it is today.

Of course we are in peril on this new and greater sea. But if men were unwilling to face peril, we would still be living in caves and wearing mastodon skins. It is absolutely beyond me why so many reporters of the Columbia tragedy were oblivious to this simple, inexorable truth. As the opening chapter of Melville's Moby Dick inquires, "Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea?"

--

(About the author: Congressman Billybob is fictitious, but prolific, on the Internet -- the invention of John Armor, who writes books and practices law in the U.S. Supreme Court. Comments and criticisms are welcome at CongressmanBillybob@earthlink.net).

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