Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rockets in the News

It’s been a big week for NASA in the Ogden Standard-Examiner. Tuesday’s top front-page story was about the imminent test launch of the Ares I rocket, whose booster stage is manufactured locally at ATK. Then on Wednesday, the business section ran a wire-service article on the same subject, complete with photos and graphics--plus a teaser headline at the top of the front page with a picture of the rocket stretching all the way across. The launch is scheduled for next Tuesday, so I suppose we can look forward to at least one more big article.

Meanwhile, buried inside Friday’s paper was another article, with no illustrations, about the release of the Augustine Committee report. This appointed committee of experts has concluded that NASA’s ambitious plans for human space flight are unrealistic unless its budget is increased by $3 billion per year. Even then, the most glamorous mission we can afford within 15 years is to land on a passing asteroid or comet, or perhaps fly past Mars without landing. Oh, and the Ares I rocket is too small for such a mission.

Even Friday’s article devoted only one sentence to the question of why NASA should do these things. At least according to one committee member, the reason is “to interest the American public in new destinations.” I suppose that’s more or less equivalent to “because it’s there.”

The article gave far more space to Congressman Rob Bishop’s reaction to the report, which focuses entirely on what’s in it for his district: jobs at ATK producing Ares and Space Shuttle booster rockets.

I have to congratulate the PR folks at NASA and ATK for playing-up this test launch enough to push the Augustine report off the front page. And I can hardly blame the paper for caring more about jobs in Utah than vague long-term goals.

But I find it sad that human space flight, which once represented humanity’s loftiest goals, is now viewed as little more than another jobs program.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dad!

My father, Vernon Schroeder, turned 92 today. In recognition of the occasion, let me try to outline his long and fascinating life.

Dad was born in western North Dakota. His parents were Fred Schroeder and Edith Jesperson, children of immigrant farmers. One family was German and the other was Danish, but most of all they were Lutheran.

When he was told, as a teenager, that nonbelievers would burn in Hell for all eternity, Dad decided there could be no higher calling in life than to save souls from such unthinkable suffering. So he decided to become a minister. He went to college in Moorhead, Minnesota, and then to seminary in St. Paul. After a year at that seminary he decided their theology wasn’t quite correct, so he transferred to the more doctrinally pure Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary in St. Louis.

As a minister he was never expected to serve in World War II. Instead he became pastor to a congregation in rural Minnesota for three years. Then he moved back to St. Louis and worked at the Missouri Synod publishing house where in 1949 he met my mother, Dorothy Schneider, the granddaughter of urban German Lutheran immigrants.

A few years after getting married, Dad took a job teaching Old Testament at a Lutheran parochial high school. That fresh look at the Bible convinced him it couldn’t all be literally true, and sent him down the slippery slope from fundamentalism to agnosticism. But though he may have literally lost his faith, he never lost his fundamental goal in life: to save people from suffering.

Years later, after he retired and my mother died, Dad finally had the freedom to pursue his dream of full-time “ministry” on his own terms. So he moved himself from the quiet suburbs of St. Louis to a retirement home in the center of Washington, DC. Those who didn’t know him well were astounded that at age 80 he would move farther away from his sons, to a city where he didn’t know a soul. But for him, it made perfect sense. He had always loved big cities, he was never that close to any of his family, and he wanted to go where he could find plenty of people to preach to, one at a time. Also, as he quipped only half-jokingly, he wanted to attack the world’s evil at its root.

Politically, Dad has always been on the far left. He grew up during the Depression, when it seemed perfectly reasonable to be a fundamentalist Christian and a socialist at the same time. Today his ideals seem incongruous. Like most liberals, he supports workers’ rights, minority rights, and the United Nations. Recently he has also embraced newer liberal causes such as environmental protection, abortion rights, and gay rights. But at the same time he despises the ACLU and its allies for trying to purge religion from the government and the public schools. Though he calls himself an agnostic, he cannot imagine morality without religion.

Dad has spent the last 12 years walking the streets of the nation’s capital, looking for people who will listen to him. He visits congressional offices, other government buildings, and nonprofit institutions, talking mostly to receptionists and security guards. He carries little homemade “tracts” in his pocket and hands them out. He frequently calls and writes to tell me of his ministry’s many dead-ends and ever-present hopes.

He readily admits that his platform is a little vague. We need to get rid of the corrupt corporations and government institutions and churches and over-paid professionals. We need to put religion and morality back into the schools. We need to bring people together in small groups for frequent serious discussion. Ideally, people should live in communes. Let the detail-oriented people work out the details.

Sadly, Dad has never understood my love of abstract science: How is it morally acceptable to spend time solving “problems” that don’t directly affect people? He sympathizes with my local political crusades, but considers them petty compared to the world’s big problems.

And my view of his ministry is equally critical. I wish he were more of a pragmatist and a problem solver, not just an idealist. I wish he could focus his thoughts well enough to gather up the one-liners into a coherent booklet or even a letter to the editor.

Still, he’s doing what he loves, working day and night to show the world that he cares--even at age 92. That in itself is enough to earn anyone’s respect.