Pax River has helped pro­pel space pro­gram

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

For al­most five decades now, peo­ple have some­times ap­proached tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems with the ques­tion, “If we could send a man to the moon, why can’t we … ?”

And of course, we’ve ac­com­plished a lot on this planet since then. But even in this age of in­stant in­for­ma­tion, and the no­tion that most ev­ery­thing use­ful must al­ready have been in­vented, Amer­ica’s beat­ing the Sovi­ets in the space race by suc­cess­fully land­ing Apollo 11 on the moon on July 20, 1969, re­mains a re­ally big deal. It was equal parts mil­i­tarism, sci­ence and sport, all played out un­der the icy cover of the Cold War.

For mil­len­nia, hu­man be­ings have gazed into the night sky at our satel­lite, our near­est ce­les­tial neigh­bor, our moon. For ages it has been the sub­ject of myth and leg­end, of mu­sic and po­etry. It gov­erns our tides and, when full, lights our nights.

It’s nearly a quar­ter of a mil­lion miles away. And hu­mans have set foot on it. Walked on it, hopped on it, planted a flag on it, hit a golf ball on it. Amaz­ing.

As chron­i­cled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff,” Patux­ent River Naval Air Sta­tion in neigh­bor­ing St. Mary’s County has had a ma­jor hand in the space pro­gram. In fact, four of the seven orig­i­nal Mer­cury as­tro­nauts were grad­u­ates of the U.S. Naval Test Pi­lot School at Pax River. Many other of NASA’s finest, from even­tual Gemini and Apollo crews to space shut­tle as­tro­nauts, have come through South­ern Mary­land and lived among us as they aimed for the stars.

Sure, there have been some con­spir­acy the­o­rists for the past 47 years since Neil Arm­strong first climbed down from the “Ea­gle,” the lu­nar mod­ule, and put his boot­prints in that gray, pow­dery soil. Some say it was a hoax — that it all took place in the Ari­zona desert or a Hol­ly­wood back lot, and have ac­cused NASA of doc­tor­ing pho­tographs and fab­ri­cat­ing the en­tire thing. Come on. Don’t be sur­prised if these folks also think the moon is made of green cheese.

Oh, it hap­pened, all right. Amer­ica took Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s chal­lenge to heart and did, in fact, make the trip suc­cess­fully. “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,” he said, “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.”

Of course now, in­ter­est in space is a lot less overtly po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­taris­tic, and a lot more eco­nomic. Space sta­tion crews from around the world reg­u­larly fly up into or­bit and re­lieve shifts of other as­tro­nauts.

And we’re learn­ing more about the ef­fects of space travel on the hu­man body as we go. Scott Kelly re­cently re­turned after hav­ing spent a year on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion with a Rus­sian cos­mo­naut. He has been un­der­go­ing tests to com­pare his health to that of his twin brother, re­tired as­tro­naut Mark Kelly. Both at­tended the TPS at Pax River.

Amer­ica’s not likely to send any­one else to the moon, and while probes have in­spected Mars, Venus and Jupiter in great de­tail, manned flight to those plan­ets is doubt­ful in the fore­see­able fu­ture as well. But we’ve learned a lot about our­selves since first land­ing on the moon, and those who have made the trip are to be lauded.

And none of it could have hap­pened with­out Pax River. Don’t for­get that.

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