Today we remember and honor the bold space pioneers lost 10 years ago today, just as they began their epic voyage.
Certainly we honor their bravery and courage, but we also honor other human traits which, while once ennobled, have in the decade since become the objects of cynicism. To some Conservatives, the sense of adventure and the application of science to solve human problems have become the subject of derision. We hear the pundit class openly scoff at "liberal utopianism" and their talk-show allies mock scientific truth as "fantasy" - and denounce visionaries who win the Nobel Prize.
Given all that has happened in the past 10 years - to our nation and our country's sense of itself - it is perhaps worth stopping today to remember those events of Oct. 16, 1997. Of course, you all know the story - but let's tell it again, as if it had never been told, so that we may appreciate how those events continue to affect us today. Come with me below the fold as we relive the events of 10 years ago ... when the Robinson family began their ill-fated voyage aboard the Jupiter 2.
I'm sure we all remember watching television that night and have vivid memories of what we saw: the busy technicians scurrying around inside Alpha Control as last-minute technical glitches were resolved - then seeing the Robinson family and Maj. Don West board the Jupiter 2. The 30-billion-dollar atomic-powered ship, the end-product of nearly 40 years of research, was fully equipped to reach its ultimate destination: the Alpha Centauri star system, our nearest galactic neighbor. In the preceding years it had been conclusively established by a series of Deep Thrust Telescopic Probes that there was a habitable planet in that system, the only one within the range of our technology with ideal conditions for human life.
Of course the reason for the Jupiter 2 mission remains controversial to this day. To many on the Right, global overpopulation and depletion of earth's resources is a myth; a fantasy cooked up by liberals. Of course the supposed motive for "cooking up" this scheme shifts depending on the pundit. Some Conservatives see it as a purely political ploy by "tax and spend" Democrats; others see it as a more sinister conspiracy by "environmental wackos" bent on changing lifestyles to suit a "politically correct" social agenda. They have even gone so far as to attack the Nobel prizes awarded to those who foresaw the problem years before other scientists - all but a handful of whom now concede the looming planetary crisis facing us.
Despite the controversy, more than 2 million people volunteered to be the Earth's first colonalists - and it was sincerely hoped that those chosen for the Jupiter 2 mission would be the first of as many as 10 million families who might soon leave Earth and relieve the bitter competition for her limited resources. Ultimately, it was decided that the family of Prof. John Robinson, an astrophysicist and doctor of applied planetary geology at the University of Taos, would make the trip. His wife, Dr. Maureen Robinson, the distinguished biochemist from the New Mexico Institute for Space Medicine, and the couple's three children, Judy (20), Penny (13) and Will (11) all exemplified what the selection committee called a "unique balance of scientific achievement, emotional stability and pioneer resourcefulness." They were of course joined by Don West, a major in the U.S. Space Corps, and a gifted astrophysicist and interplanetary geologist in his own right.
Of course, those of us with children remember that they were most fascinated by the "seventh" crewmember: the B-9 Environmental Control robot, so specifically designed for the mission it even had the equivalent of two years' medical training programmed into it by the Institute of Cybernetics.
All crew members were placed in a state of suspended animation for the 5 1/2-year journey and the countdown proceeded to a routine launch:; the ship began to glow brightly as the fusion core began to activate and then the ship shot upwards from the tripod-like launch cradle. But, as we all know, things began to deteriorate quite rapidly soon afterwards.
Technicians on both Earth and the Lunar Tracking Station at Copernicus soon noticed that the ship had nearly 200 pounds of excess weight aboard. The ship's automated navigation system had been programmed only for a specific weight and so caused the ship to veer into a meteor swarm. It is known that the ship must have sustained some meteor impacts, as telemetry showed fires had broken out in several magna-panels. Presumably those fires were extinguished by automated systems, for the ship did successfully navigate its way through the meteor swarm - only to mysteriously lock itself into a hyperdrive precisely eight hours after launch, quickly leaving our star system on a trajectory into deep space. On Oct. 21 all attempts to contact the ship were discontinued and the Robinson party was declared to be hopelessly lost in space.
The Allen Commission, appointed later to determine the cause of the accident fixed the blame on sabotage. The perpetrators were presumed to be a cell of the terrorist group Aeolus 14 Umbra, who - it was found - had paid large sums of money to Col. Zachary Smith, a noted physician and doctor of environmental and intergalactic psychology who had assisted in programming the B-9 robot. Smith was reported missing after the Jupiter launch and his body has not yet been found - which is considered a signature of the group, which has worked with several nations trying to outstrip the United States in a race to colonize space.
While it was supposed to resolve the mysteries surrounding the Jupiter 2 mission, the Commission's report has only spawned a cottage industry in conspiracy theories. Most of these theories are based on classified internal memos from Alpha Control which indicated that Maj. West's freezing tube was deactivated in the midst of the meteor swarm, leading many to believe that the crew is still alive, somewhere in the vastness of the galaxy.
Of course, the most pervasive conspiracy theory is that the government is suppressing information that Will Robinson returned to earth - albeit briefly - just after New Years in 1998. As Davey Sims, a resident of Hatfield Four Corners, Vt., maintains on his blog WillRobinsonisAlive.com
the youngest Robinson returned on a "maser beam" courtesy of advanced technology left behind on the planet where the family was supposedly marooned. The government admits checking out the rumor, but has said nothing else. A photograph of "Will Robinson" taken at the office of the town's constable, is overlit and residents dispute the story that the boy was last seen enveloped by a beam of light which receded into space.
Of course, none of these theories have proved true. The idea of a massive government conspiracy is a favorite of both the Right and the Left, but the idea that the government can maintain such secrets - like its supposed time travel project - is preposterous.
In the years since the Robinson's disappearance, those of us who live in the "reality-based community" have seen the heroic mission become a political football among the Right. Talk-show hosts feel free to bloviate about "liberal professors" getting what they deserved. Little by little, once-honored enterprises as space exploration and dreaming of a better future have been cheapened by this discourse so that now we live in a bitter, cynical age.
This is not the way it is supposed to be. We must not be deterred by what happened to the Robinson party, but rather inspired by them and their sacrifice. After all, they themselves were not deterred by previous space tragedies, such as the loss in 1982 of astronaut Jimmy Hapgood on his mission to Saturn. Indeed, space flight has become routine for many people, despite the risk. Incidents such as the 1983 loss of Continent Air and Space Lines Flight 612 have certainly not stopped people from taking sub-orbital passenger flights.
Instead of being dissuaded from venturing into the unknown, we must be inspired by those adventurous souls who braved ridicule and achieved great things. What would have happened to us all, for example, if the late, great Admiral Harriman Nelson, had listened to the naysayers about his giant nuclear submarine? We would all be under the thumb of the ruthless Dr. Gamma, that's what.
Conservatives may mock the dreamers and those who would risk all for their dreams. But we must not allow their cynicism to affect us, or our children. Let's not be afraid to dream - and keep reaching for the stars.