Thursday, September 8, 2011

The generation that took us to the Moon...

Last night I had the opportunity to convey my condolences to the family of Ken Randle, a prominent engineer in the state of Utah.  Ken had a lifetime of engineering work with ties to the space program, and worked on "The Grand Tour" which ultimately resulted in the Voyager spacecrafts.  You can see recollections of his efforts, in his own words, in this video.  On the eve of his passing, Voyager 1 was continuing its transit of the heliopause, becoming the first human-made object to truly enter interstellar space.  In 40,000 years, this craft will be passing within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888.

This is an exceptional legacy for any engineer, and Ken represents the generation of engineers, scientists, builders, and others with the imagination that took humans from farming to spaceflight.

Ken was born in 1923 and came of age in a generation when the world experienced incredible changes.  Between 1900 and 1950, America went from a farming nation with more than half of the population living on farms to an industrial nation with only 16% of people still living on a farm.  Based on my short interaction with Ken, I am not sure which half he was in, but something tells me that if he wasn't raised on a farm, his parents may have been, and his grandparents certainly were.

I suspect even in 1950 there wasn't quite the stark line between "farm" and "non-farm" as we have today.  If people didn't have chickens in their garage (like my mother) or have the "pig man" drop by to get scraps for the local hogs (like S.'s mother), than they at least were visited by the milk man and the grocer probably knew all the local farmers.  There may have been a cannery or two, and possible a grain mill, near town.  I can't help but think there was a connection between the rural-ness of America, and the birth of great engineers like Ken.

My own father, another great engineer from a similar generation, grew up in Rochester, MN, his own father the city's engineer.  My grandmother held on to a bit of farming.  She raised a garden, rented a freezer to store meat in bulk - probably bought by the whole, half, or quarter - and knew how to put up the harvest for winter.  Yes, my dad left that "farm" and largely threw off those rural habits.  And when I asked him why he left Rochester, he told me "that's just what you did."  I suppose the birth rate going from 80 per 1000 women to 118 between 1940 and 1960 means there's less room on the "ranch".  Those kids must move on to something.  That something turned out to be industrializing the nation and sending men to the Moon.

But I feel the connection is deeper than just "we generated a bunch of kids to go off and become engineers."  I think there must be some connection between my grandmother's canning of tomatoes and my dad's desire to build the next generation of power plants.  I can't help thinking that Ken worked so diligently on "The Grand Tour" because he had some experience with horses, and grew up in a more rural America.

Our friends' daughter is coming back to our "farm" to help with the chores tonight.  She learned in school about Texas, about the wide open spaces, and about the cattle that graze that range.  She says she wants to grow up to be a rancher and farmer there, and needs to get experience as early as possible. She helps clean tack, muck stalls, and milks the goat.

I don't know if she is really going to grow up to be a rancher in Texas, but last night reminded me that the generation that took us to the Moon probably knew how to milk a goat.

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