Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Best Answer to North Korea

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When I heard that North Korea was preparing to launch a rocket into space, I experienced quite a few different feelings.
Certainly I was concerned, because engineering-wise, it's not hard to turn "rocket for space exploration" into "rocket that can carry that nuclear warhead we really hope those crazy so-and-sos who run North Korea don't have yet." But what I felt mostly was annoyance. Not at the North Koreans (see "concerned," above), but at our own government and its weak response to this event.
What's this, you say? Has Rhoades suddenly become one of those fire-breathing jingoistic hotheads that want us to perform a military strike on North Korea, immediately if not sooner?
Nope. I'm not thinking that small. That's what annoys me: that we here in the U.S.A., both the left and the right, are doing just that - thinking small. Military strikes? Sanctions? Pfft. Weak.
Return with me now to the glory days of the late 1950s, when America discovered that our mortal enemies, the Soviet Union, had launched a satellite called Sputnik into Earth orbit. Sure, we flipped out, since the Rooskies actually did have nukes and were most certainly willing to aim them at us.
But what did we do in response? Did we talk in stern tones about provocation and threaten to cut off aid? 
No. We went to the freakin' moon. 
That's right. The moon. None of this pussyfooting around with sanctions and useless finger-shaking. The Soviets put rockets into space? Well, by golly, we decided, we'll do that, too.
After a few setbacks, we were doing it better.
Oh, sure, the Russians sent a human up first, but Yuri Gagarin was just along for the ride, on a spacecraft flying on automatic mode. Not only that, but when he returned to Earth, it was by bailing out of his craft at 23,000 feet and landing by parachute. Our guy, when he went up, was an actual pilot, controlling his craft and bringing it down safely (even if it wasn't good for much afterward).
Then President Kennedy doubled down. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade," he said, "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."
A mere eight years later, we'd done it. We had men walking, driving dune buggies, even playing golf, on the surface of the moon. Along the way, we developed some of the technologies that we use every day: communications satellites, weather satellites, and nonstick cookware. Take that, Ivan!
That's how we ought to deal with some jackleg dictator shooting rockets into space: We show him we can do it better, faster, and with more vision and ambition than his sad little backwater could ever dream of doing.
Personally, I'd love it if one of our diplomats could approach some North Korean functionary at a cocktail party and go, "I hear you're putting a satellite into space. That's just adorable. We're going to Mars, you know. Probably be mining the asteroid belt in 10 years. More caviar?"
Sadly, we seem to have lost that desire to show the world what we can do, to "organize and measure the best of our energies and skills" by doing things like visiting our celestial neighbors. The Obama administration killed the ambitious Constellation program in favor of a smaller, less aggressive vision. While they're doing some interesting things in the area of private research and development, those seem mostly focused on keeping the aging International Space Station in Earth orbit, not doing big things like going back to the moon or exploring Mars.
And make no mistake: Expanding our capabilities and our options beyond this fragile blue ball isn't just a matter of showing up our international adversaries; it's a matter of our survival as a species.
One planet isn't going to be enough forever, and this one's right in the cross hairs of some big, extinction-causing rocks. You could ask the dinosaurs, if they hadn't been wiped out by the aforementioned rocks.

Even if the thought of thumbing our noses at North Korea doesn't launch your rocket, that's another reason we need to remember who we are, hitch up our britches, and get ourselves back to the High Frontier.