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A chip off the old moon
[Stunning 360° stiched panoramas of the surface of the moon!]

OK, it's the 20th anniversary of a giant step for (hu)mankind, a step taken by Americans and motivated, to some extent, by Kennedy's fears that the Soviet Union would dominate "space." Bravo, NASA! As Tom Wolfe points, out, however, Neil Armstrong's moonwalk was for NASA a "giant leap to nowhere," signaling the shrinkage of our space aspirations that would result from an immediate 40 percent cut to the NASA budget. 

That denouement notwithstanding, the US did manage to accomplish a very specific, very ambitious goal, on schedule, through an intensely collaborative process of science and engineering. Bravo, USA! 

A few years ago, on a break from work I was doing with Jhai Foundation, I visited the Royal Palace Museum in the mountain town of Luang Prabang in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR). The French-colonial-style museum was built in 1904 as a summer retreat for the Lao royal family. The summer palace was converted to a museum when the current Pathet Lao government defeated the royalists. 

Among the museum displays are perhaps 100 gifts given to the last king, Savang Vatthana, before he was deposed. Almost all of these objects are works of inspired craft performed in precious materials. Among the most memorable was an intricately carved ivory sphere with 18 or so smaller, equally intricate, freely rotating spheres that had been carved inside it. We spent a long time imagining the sculpting process, the precision required, the patience, the absence of fear. 

Many of the other gifts testified to similar skill and care. (And mind you, these gifts were given to a government, a king, that had presided over factionalism and civil war since its independence from the French in 1954, a teetering government that was about to fall.) 

The US government had sent a gift as well. The US offering comprised a plastic model of the lunar landing module, about 8 inches across, and a round black rock. The size of a hazelnut. It took a few seconds to figure out what we were looking at.

Of course it was a piece of the moon. A moon rock brought back Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard or another of the 10 or 12 people who have ever walked on the moon. 

My first reaction was "American arrogance!" (I'm of that generation, I'm afraid.) The gifts from other countries, in any event, showed much better than the US offering--a plastic model and a rock.

But today, on the 40th anniversary of the event, and as globalization ushers in the diminishment of America's technical and research strength, as I ponder the US race to the moon I acknowledge vanishing drive, patience, and lack of fear not altogether different in quality from the skills need to carve free-rotating spheres out of a block of ivory.


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