For over half a century, NASA has pushed the confines of our knowledge and the technical limits of our society, making the world a better place — even though the government agency has ruined many a sci-fi movie by proving that the physics involved are improbable. And seeing as this summer is the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landings, I thought it fitting that I share the top ten things I’ve gotten or learned because of NASA. While these tidbits may not be common knowledge, and some people might not consider them all to be true, I wouldn’t know these important kernels of information if it weren’t for NASA.
1. You can love peace and still blow things up. Okay, maybe the guys at NASA didn’t actually want the satellites Vanguard TV3, TV5, SLV1-3, SLV 5, Explorer S-1 and others to be destroyed before reaching orbit, but who doesn’t like a good fireworks display? The 4th of July only comes once a year, but watching a million-dollar satellite be vaporized while showing up the Soviet Union in the name of science is truly an American experience.
2. Earth is small. People may feel arrogant at times and assume there’s a lot of Earth to go around, but when you see a view of your home obscured by an astronaut’s helmet, it puts things in perspective — especially when people need emotional visual aids to decide that an SUV might not be the best thing for the planet.
3. Democracy always wins. Okay, so maybe the Soviets beat us to space, and getting a man up there, and getting a man to spacewalk and setting up a space station — but dammit, we got to the moon first. Now the U.S. is the largest supplier of moon cakes, and no one is gonna yank our flags from the moon until it becomes profitable to go back.
4. Dippin’ Dots. ‘Nuff said.
5. Buzz Aldrin is awesome. He might not have been first on the moon, but Neil Armstrong never appeared on the Simpsons, had his own rap single or punched a conspiracy theorist in the face. And the conspiracy theorist learned that it’s a bad idea to claim that a guy who traveled half a million miles in a tin can after flying fighter jets in the Korean war actually just shuffled around a sound stage for a few weeks.
6. MacGyver couldn’t hold a candle to NASA technicians. The crew of Apollo 13 would have died if they hadn’t jury-rigged incompatible carbon dioxide scrubbers to their damaged spacecraft to keep the air breathable. NASA engineers came up with a fix in a few hours using only the plastic cover of a flight plan, spare spacesuit hosing, cardboard, a sock and every handyman’s mainstay: duct tape.
7. Weightlessness looks fun. Maybe it’s just me, but astronauts — when they’re not sick from disorientation — seem to really enjoy playing around in zero-g. Besides, would space be nearly as fun if you couldn’t walk on the ceiling and eat liquids like a blob of JELL-O?
8. Always check your units. NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft because it failed to double check with contractor Lockheed Martin that all components were built in metric units. As it turns out, Lockheed used English units and the probe’s computer miscalculated its trajectory by several miles. Kind of makes that typo on your paper seem trivial, doesn’t it?
9. How to weed out the crazies. Life would be a lot harder if every person who believed that Mars is populated by militant aliens bent on Earth’s destruction had nothing to speak up about. Agencies like NASA are the best crazy-bait to bring the conspiracy-nuts out into the open.
10. Great desktop wallpapers for my computer.
Others may argue that NASA’s many contributions to science are the true cause for celebration. But I’ve always felt facts, anecdotes and observations like these are the truly praiseworthy contributions by NASA. After all, if Dippin’ Dots weren’t the greatest novelty ever, would people pay three times more for it than for regular ice cream?
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.