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Because the end is far

Spencer Tracy never even saw the Northwest Passage in the 1940 MGM movie of that name.


Jubilee: October 4, 2007, 50th anniversary of Sputnik

Back in 1957, working in Azusa for Aerojet, I was in my fifth year of developing control subsystems for rocket engines. The news came as no surprise; the Russians had been very open about their efforts. We may have been disappointed, but did not feel out-classed. I dont recall thinking of it as the symbolic beginning of the space age although it is now generally so regarded. Sputnik changed things. The game was afoot. Within months, the U.S. government began throwing money at us.

And so, in one lifetime we witnessed the premature birth of the space age, its precocious childhood, its awkward adolescence, and its current sad deployment in assisted-living settings.

The Russians beat us into orbit; we beat them to the moon. After the low-hanging fruit was picked, nobody knew what to do. Wed had in mind new frontiers - we got moon rocks, a barely-operable shuttle bus, and a toy space station.

(Not incidentally, these strivings provided me an interesting career and a comfortable pension.)

On the campaign trail in 2004, President George W. Bush proposed a return trip to the moon. Why? We need new rocks? Nobody paid attention.

Now back home (on earth) were sensing vulnerability from neglected and abused old frontiers. Things are getting out of hand. The legendary Northwest Passage is defrosting, opening up year-round for holiday cruises and oil spills. Were playing catch up.

The space age can wait a few centuries. Assuming we survive, we may then be ready for it.

From 1969 to 1972, the Apollo program ferried 840 pounds of rocks from the moon.

This summer for the first time on record, the Northwest Passage was ice-free from Atlantic to Pacific. New regular trade routes may open soon. The distance from London to Tokyo, 13,000 miles via the Suez Canal, will be only 8100 miles. Control of these routes along the top of the world has every nation north of the equator gesticulating.

Including, of course, us and Russia. On August 2, 2007 they planted a titanium flag on the North Pole seabed. Here we go again.