Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Noteworthy Day in American History

Today is the anniversary of two noteworthy events in American history.

They are noteworthy for different reasons — and, on the surface, appear to have little, if anything, in common. But bear with me.

Now, something has happened on every day in the calendar — even if it was nothing more than people were born on that day and people died on that day. For a long time I believed that nothing of note ever happened on the day of my birth — other than the fact that a few famous people were born on that day and a few died — but I later learned that there were some historic — albeit minor — events on my birthday.

There are 365 days in a year (366 in Leap Years); in a few thousand years of recorded history it stands to reason that something, however great or small, must have happened on each at some time.

Dec. 19 is the anniversary of two significant events in American history, separated by nearly two centuries, but they both speak to the purpose of America.

The first event was on this day in 1777. Gen. George Washington and his men began to set up their winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pa.

Even if you never learned the specifics when you were in school, you almost surely learned of the Continental Army's struggle to survive that winter. They had been engaged in a battle with the British in early December, and Washington sought some place where his men could spend the winter.

There were several considerations — Washington needed a location that would support wartime objectives. Valley Forge was far from ideal, but it was easy to defend and had plenty of timber that could be used to build huts.

Everything was in short supply — food, clothing, shelter.

As for shelter ...

It was on this day 240 years ago that construction of the first hut at Valley Forge began. It was completed in three days. By February, 2,000 huts had been built.

Having shelter against the elements helped, but it did nothing for the food and clothing shortages. Contrary to popular belief, Valley Forge had comparatively little snow that winter, but the conditions were still frigid, the men were ill–clothed and underfed.

Why did they endure such hardship? Because they believed in the concept of freedom.

Fast forward 195 years.

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17 returned to Earth. It was a little more than three years since Apollo 11's historic voyage to the moon.

Consequently most Americans probably expected to see men walking on the surface of some other object in the heavens — even though Apollo 18 had been canceled more than two years earlier and no further space landings of any kind were on NASA's schedule. No such missions have been launched in 45 years, and no such missions are planned although the notion has been given plenty of lip service.

Most people probably didn't recognize it at the time, but America was in a truly transitional period. The idea of American exceptionalism had been taking a beating due to the Vietnam War and Watergate. There was a crisis in American confidence that continues to this day.

After Richard Nixon cruised to re–election as president in 1972, things began to change in American politics. In the next two decades, three incumbent presidents would be rejected at the polls by the voters (for comparison purposes, three incumbent presidents were rejected by the voters in the previous 80 years), and the only destinations for American space travelers were space stations.

If they could visit America today, the veterans of Valley Forge might wonder what has become of the country for which they sacrificed so much. What has happened to the courage that sustained them through Valley Forge and the seemingly impossible revolution against British rule? What has become of that "what's next" spirit of exploration that led Americans from the eastern shores of the continent to the western shores — and from there into space?

While it is true that President Donald Trump recently signed Space Policy Directive 1, which provides for a return to the moon — and beyond — Ethan Siegel writes for Forbes that ain't happening.

"With no plans for adequate, additional funding to support these ambitions," Siegel writes, "these dreams will simply evaporate, as they have so many times before."

Perhaps Siegel is right. Perhaps the objective needs to be more targeted. The scattershooting approach of returning to the moon then jumping to the next goal (Mars) and beyond may not be the way to go, as Siegel suggests.

"If we want to go to Mars, we should make that our goal and invest in it," he writes. "If we want to go to the Moon, we should make that our goal and invest in it. Pretending that one has anything to do with the other is a delusion."

Maybe so. But it also seems to me that the spirit of Valley Forge has taken a beating since the days of Apollo 17.

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