“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
— from President John F. Kennedy’s “Race for Space” speech delivered before students and faculty of Rice University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the walk on the moon by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, an event witnessed on television by people around the world. The achievement after a decade of hard work and dedication by NASA personnel was enormous, of course, and as a prestigious accomplishment in science and engineering it has not been topped in the 50 years since July 20, 1969.
The feature that stands out after a half century is how little the actual landings on the moon, by Apollo 11 and by subsequent missions, has mattered in the lives of people on Earth. It was all the technological and scientific discoveries and advancements made along the way to landing astronauts on the moon which have made the most impact on the lives of many people. Giving astronauts prominence before the public and making them integral to the Apollo program garnered public support while increasing the expense and difficulty of the missions. Having the Apollo astronauts bound around the surface of the moon for a few hours and gather up some rocks made a comparatively small impact on the wealth of scientific and technical knowledge NASA reaped from the program, while keeping up public interest and support.
“Earthrise”, a photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968.
Of all the insights common people gained from the Apollo program, perhaps none made a greater impression overall than the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. In the foreground is what astronaut Buzz Aldrin would seven months later call the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, and viewed from a distance of about 240,000 miles, in a perspective never before seen by anyone on Earth, is the partially sunlit Earth, our home, appearing fragile and jewel-like in the black emptiness of space.
That picture and the emotions it stirred gave impetus and urgency to the environmental movement, and before the end of 1970 people around the world recognized the first Earth Day and in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency began operations. To strive for a decade to land astronauts on the moon, increasing knowledge and spurring progress all along the way, and then to have those astronauts turn around and look back toward the earth, sharing that view with everyone, that was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Apollo space program.
The opening sequence of the 1982 meditative documentaryKoyaanisqatsi depicts the Holy Ghosts portion of the Great Gallery pictograph in Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, followed by the liftoff of Apollo 11 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. Godfrey Reggio directed the film, Ron Fricke was the cinematographer, and Philip Glass wrote the music. The title comes from the Hopi language and the film makes oblique and direct references to Hopi prophecies, or warnings; and while the Great Gallery pictograph did not originate with the Hopi, they believe it and other pictographs in the Four Corners region are the work of their ancestors and they hold them sacred.
The American system, and perhaps the American character as well, has always favored coping with the damage from disasters as they come over doing all that can be done beforehand to mitigate the severity of damage. The insurance industry is aligned toward dealing with the aftermath rather than encouraging preventive measures, as is the government, which tends to label regulations designed for prevention as socialist intrusions. It’s the same philosophy that guides the economic system, which is all for free market capitalism on the front end when businesses are making profits for the few, but resorts to socialism on the back end when things go sour and losses are then spread out among the many. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” says the Wall Street tycoon, and friends in government chime in “Yea, verily.”
Unrestricted urban and suburban developmentcovers acreage that drained itself adequately with concrete and asphalt that does not absorb water. That seems obvious, and the necessity for a drainage system capable of handling all the runoff also seems obvious. Certainly there are some events, such as the unprecedented rainfall in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, that would stretch any drainage system to the breaking point. Extraordinary events require extraordinary preparation, a methodology well known among engineers, who are trained to design and build structures and systems to withstand the extraordinary. Engineers’ best efforts can be hamstrung, however, by ideologically and greed driven government leaders and business executives, the effect of which can be seen when disaster strikes and destruction of life and property is greater than it needed to be.
Dynamiting through a levee during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to create an artificial crevasse at Caernarvon, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 14 miles below New Orleans. The crevasse was created to take pressure off levees at New Orleans. Archival photography by Steve Nicklas.
The acknowledged masters of hydro engineering,the Dutch, have recently changed their philosophy about coping with excess water from staving it off to flexing with it. Bend, to keep from breaking. That has always been the way with nature, of course, where coastal wetlands have served to absorb the brunt of ocean surges, and where floodplains served as safety valves for swollen rivers. Holding water back with fortifications has always been expensive and unreliable. Water is relentless, and it will find a way.
A flooded town on the lower stretch of the Mississippi River in 1927. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Creating concrete and asphalt jungles willy nilly without regard to anything other than the almighty dollar is foolishness, and ultimately a price will be paid. In the American system, unfortunately, that price is often borne by the society as a whole, and especially by the poor, but certainly not by the wealthy or by the government leaders who created the mess. Breaking up the concrete and asphalt jungle with permeable pavement, a construction practice that has been around for over fifty years and needs to be used more widely, is one way to forestall some urban flooding. Installation costs for permeable pavement are higher than the traditional kind, but it has other benefits and cost savings that offset the higher up front price tag. It’s not a perfect solution, but nothing can be. It’s a step in the right direction.
One of the arguments some business people and their mouthpieces in government often advance against green methods applied to development are that they create too much red tape, leading to a bad environment for business and a net loss of jobs, besides being downright socialist, which of course is an accusation that is supposed to make all the Greens (environmentalists, tree huggers – choose your own epithet) run away and hide themselves in shame. Too bad. If the true costs of bad environmental practices were borne by the businesses and governments that engage in them, they would change their tune.
A 1974 song written and sung by Randy Newman about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and about American society.
If businesses paid their workers a living wage, fewer of those workers would need to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. If businesses that made money here and took advantage of the national infrastructure were required to have corporate offices here, and therefore required to pay their fair share of taxes to help support infrastructure improvements, then maybe the country wouldn’t be falling apart while a select few get obscenely rich at the expense of everyone else. If, in other words, we stopped allowing some businesses and their allies in government to slough off hidden expenses on society at large, we could make progress toward a less dangerous future. But it’s going to take a change of heart, of character, to turn this backwards system around and look at green development as the only sensible way forward for everyone, instead of being led by the nose by those whose view of development looks backwards and serves only themselves.