Tuesday, October 22, 2013

We Need To Dream Again

My parents’ generation dreamed big and accomplished much.  They were members of what has been called, “The Greatest Generation.”   My father was born in the second decade of the 20th Century in a country that had just entered the world stage during World War 1.  During his lifetime, he
  • saw the Great Depression begin and end.
  • fought in World War II (North Africa).
  • witnessed aviation progress from Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic to daily non-stop jet service to and from nearly every major city on the planet.
  • experienced the birth of nuclear energy --  both nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power.
  • benefitted from the development of antibiotics, the near-eradication of polio, and the end of smallpox.
  • saw rockets progress from being Robert Goddard’s curious ‘invention’ to taking people to the Moon and the launch of Voyager.
  • rode in the family Model T and later the family’s air conditioned Buick on the nation’s interstate highway system.
  • listened to a crystal radio as a boy and watched color television as an adult.
  • the list goes on, and on, and on...

I’m not saying that we aren't inventing new things today or that even the pace of innovation has slowed, which I don’t believe it has.  I am saying that we don’t seem to be doing the BIG things anymore.  Yes, the internet and cell phones are revolutionary, but they pale in comparison to the quality of life improvements made by the previous generation.  

Many seem to think that our best days are behind us and that we should therefore diminish our expectations. After all, our industrial base is declining, the middle class is shrinking and we are in so much debt that all we can do is maintain our social programs – ambitious projects are just not affordable anymore.  To this I say, “nuts!”  These problems are miniscule compared to those facing the country when my father was a young man and look at what he and his generation accomplished!

The future can be better than today, and it is up to us to make that happen.   Now is not the time to diminish our expectations.  Rather, now is the time to dream big, tackle BIG and ambitious new projects, and make tomorrow better than today.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Farewell Scott Carpenter

Today we mourn the loss of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter.  Carpenter orbited the Earth when I was about 2 months old and helped usher in the Space Age.  He and the other pioneers of the early space program were a brave group.  They took risks that we wouldn't dream of taking today – flying on rockets that tended to explode;  into an environment that we weren't yet sure would be hospitable, or at least tolerable to human life; and then back to Earth in fiery descents that took them into the deep ocean for rescue.

Without Carpenter, Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Schirra, Cooper and Slayton, we couldn't have gone to the Moon, built Skylab and Space Station or today be thinking of voyages beyond.  The combination of the right people (think Wernher Von Braun and John F. Kennedy), at the right time (The Cold War and the emerging technical capability suitable for space travel), and in the right country (with the money to fund the effort and the know-how to support it) make this generation admirable, and many argue, unique in human history.

Some say that significant historical events happen because “it is the right time.”  I say that these events are often totally dependent upon the people who make them happen.  Ideas are important; the tide of history cannot be ignored; but without the people to act, some events will simply not occur.

Scott Carpenter and his generation are passing.  They will be sorely missed.

Les Johnson - editor of "Going Interstellar" and co-author of "Back to the Moon"
Personal Homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What we need is a blackout

Last week I visited my daughter in Kentucky where she is beginning her first year of college.  My wife and I stayed nearby with a cousin who lives in a rural area of the state not far from her school.  Arriving at my cousin’s home at 11:00 pm after visiting the college campus, I was stunned by the sky view that greeted me.  It was a cool, dry fall evening with no clouds and the majesty of the stars, including a clearly visible Milky Way, all but shouted to me from above.  I stood on the driveway looked skyward for as long as I could before I had to come inside, lest I be rude to my host.

I live in an urban area and the last time I could see the Milky Way from my house was after the tornado swarm in 2011 left the entire county without power.  It was a deadly event, and a disaster for the hundreds who lost their homes, but for the rest of us it afforded an opportunity to gaze skyward and see the stars.  For some, this was the first time in their lives to see so many stars.

Now, it’s not hard to get sky views like this – but it requires planning.  Many people just need to drive an hour or so from their homes to reach a rural area without as much light pollution and voila, the beauty of the universe awaits.  We love to go camping and star gazing is an integral part of each trip.

When people see the stars, they cannot help but ask the fundamental questions that we otherwise tend to ignore in our ‘busyness.’  Questions like:

·         What’s out there?
·         Is there anyone out there looking back at us?
·         Why am I here?

Modern life with its many distractions doesn't give the average person much time, or much of a prompt (like the stars ‘shouting’ at me) to think about these topics.  With our televisions, computer screens, lighted homes and streetlights, we are mostly isolated from being confronted with questions about our place in the universe.

I suspect that if there were a nationwide blackout, one where no one was injured and no lives or property were at risk (not likely, I know), but if there were such an event, then people would see the stars and begin to ask these big questions. 

I bet public support for space exploration would dramatically increase.  

Les Johnson
personal homepage - http://www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I cannot volunteer my time to work on NASA business during the furlough

Today I received my furlough notice from NASA.  Since my job isn’t considered “excepted,” in other words, since no one will be injured or die if I don’t report for work, then I am to remain at home until recalled to work after the Congress passes and the President signs some sort of budget or continuing resolution to keep the government running.  The fact that the government has shut down all non-essential operations should come as no surprise to anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock these last several days.

What may come as a surprise to many is the following statement from the letter I received informing me of what I can and cannot do during the furlough: “During the furlough, you will be in a nonpay, nonduty status. During this time, you will not be permitted to serve NASA as an unpaid volunteer.

How many federal agencies, for that matter, how many employers have to tell their employees “I’m sending you home without pay for an indefinite period of time and you are strictly prohibited from doing any work for the company/organization on your own time and without compensation?”  I dare say there are not very many people out there who would take forced, unpaid days off and continue to work for the company that sent them home.  Except at NASA.  And, yes, if it weren’t so explicitly stated, I would be one who would continue to work on my NASA projects at home, on my own time, and without compensation.  I am sure I wouldn’t be alone.

In a normal work week, I receive 1/3 of my average daily work-related emails after 5:00 pm.  Some of them are time stamped after 11:00 pm.  I find that the people I work with routinely work at home, on their own time, as a general rule of thumb.  I’m not just talking about the rushed deadline where everyone pitches in to make it happen.   I’m referring to the day-to-day business of NASA.

Did you know that NASA has routinely been named THE best place to work in government by its own employees for at least the last two years?  How many companies where the employees routinely work uncompensated overtime just to get the job done will then turn around and rate their company as a great place to work?  Not many.  Except at NASA.


Speaking only for myself, I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case.  We’re working on challenging projects with the goals of advancing our understanding of the universe around us, expanding humanity beyond the Earth so as to ensure the eventual survival of the species, and making the Earth a better place to live for all who inhabit it.  Yes, these are lofty goals and bold assertions.  They are what motivate me and have inspired me since I was a child.  We believe we’re making a difference in the world and we love doing it.

Are there NASA employees who are just punching the clock?  Yes.  But they are in the minority.  Most of us don’t dread Mondays.  Most of us would much rather be working than furloughed and I, for one, would keep working on some of my projects during the furlough if I were allowed to do so.

Les Johnson
Linked In - http://www.linkedin.com/in/lesjohnson1
Personal Website - www.lesjohnsonauthor.com