Guest Commentary – Planting seeds at IdeaFest

Fairleigh Brooks

Fairleigh Brooks

When I was 15, my parents responded to the passion I had for manned space flight by driving me to Florida. We arrived at Cape Kennedy on July 15, 1969. The next morning Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong rose from our home planet atop the cetacean-scaled Saturn V rocket. Armstrong and Aldrin would then become the first human beings to set foot on another world, on July 20, 1969.

Right now some of you are thinking so what? Maybe even it was a lie. If so, I can’t help you.
My mom and dad and I, and a bazillion others, were a few miles from the launch site. As the rocket ignited, the visual experience arrived far ahead of the sound. Silent plumes of near steam shot up from the cooling channels below the rocket, and then a surreal rolling, cracking thunder smashed into us as the sound of giant rocket engines doing the one thing they were designed to do gave their report.

This is why I don’t care if you have met my nostalgia with a smirk: I held my binoculars to my eyes and trembled — not from fear, but from the thrill of sheer anticipation. In my 15-year-old naiveté — blind to politics and the unimaginative — I just knew I was witnessing humanity move into a new epoch. Before us was the future, of course, but also before us, all of us, was The Future — a parallax shift that just might pull us out of barbarism. And I couldn’t wait.

But I’d have to, of course. Congress canceled the Apollo program (it was never completed, just scrapped). Richard Nixon had no personal interest in space exploration, which also held no political capital for him. Thus began the manned space exploration doldrums of the last 34 years. Imagine my dismay to find the beginning years of the 21st century defined not by a space culture, but tribal warfare. By educated Americans — even national leaders — with no more sense of science and discovery than a witchdoctor.

My malaise, at last, began fading on Oct. 14, the last day of IdeaFestival. The final speaker was Burt Rutan, who took the dais and commenced to blow the roof off the place. For all you non-geeks, Rutan designed and built SpaceShip One. By completing two sub-orbital treks into space within two weeks, the craft won for Rutan, and his money man, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.

Rutan highlighted the importance to our children of a dynamic, even chaotic, society. He emphasized the fun of wonder in discovery. He demonstrated that aviation pioneers were children during the previous aviation peak. Lindbergh during the Wright brothers, Apollo engineers and astronauts during World War II, and now billionaires like Allen and Richard Branson during Apollo. It is this private money, not NASA, that will open space to ordinary folks — safely and reliably, for the price of a ticket. And sooner than you might think.

Writers look for a defining moment about a person. Rutan’s truest came when a boy asked him a question. He is 9 and wanted to know how he can build a spacecraft for one and get himself up there. “Do you want to go into space alone?” Rutan asked. “Yes,” the boy replied, with the earnestness only a child, or the truest of grown dreamers, has. It was completely clear this boy was as serious as Mozart at 9.

Here’s what was completely, totally and utterly missing in Rutan’s answer: any sense of aw, isn’t that cute! It never occurred to me until that very moment to wonder what or who is the diametric opposite of Barney the Dinosaur, but now I know.

I was going to say Rutan answered the boy as if he were an adult, but the moment was purer. Rutan simply answered the boy as the person he is. He told the boy that a decade ago he’d have to say no, this particular dream wasn’t possible, not technically, anyhow. But now he could tell the boy yes, he could do it. He could not only challenge himself, but now the technology is emerging that will let him drag his dream into existence.
Rutan meant every word. The crux of the moment, and of IdeaFestival itself, was this: The boy believed him.
IdeaFestival cost about $1 million. It involved hundreds of people in planning and execution. About 10,000 attended. And yet it’s the sort of human pursuit that is successful if just one person is set on a course he or she might have missed. IdeaFestival was successful.

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