STEP forward

Teresa Coons stands in the kaleidoscope, one of many interactive exhibits in the Math and Science Center located on Unaweep Avenue. Coons is the executive director of the center.

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Two score years and 238,857 miles ago, a human stepped foot on the moon for the first time.

“One small step for man,” Neil Armstrong intoned on a scratchy radio transmission sent from Tranquility Base and heard around the Earth, “one giant leap for mankind.”

Three years and six months later, it was over. Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, and his fellow astronaut, Jack Schmitt, left the descent stage of his lunar module in the moon dust on Dec. 14, 1972.

Since that last burst of Aerozine-50 fuel lifted Cernan from the moon, no fire-blasted adrenaline rush has taken man, or his imagination, back to the cold, airless, but nonetheless tantalizing clump of rock that revolves around the earth, inspiring poets, dreamers and lovers.

The moon also should have — but hasn’t lately — electrified the mathematical, technological, analytical and scientific essence of the humans who gaze wonderingly at it.

And that, say some Grand Valley residents, is a problem.

Too often, Armstong’s small step seems to be accepted as the last one, the culmination of a journey, not the step that opened a new vista awaiting exploration.

What’s happened in the 40 years since Armstrong slipped his foot from the bottom rung of that ladder and onto the gray moon?

“Not much,” said S.J. “Arch” Archuleta, an engineer by profession who is working to develop engineering training in western Colorado.

“What we need,” said Teri Coons, an immunologist by training and now the executive director of the Western Colorado Math and Science Center, “is a new Sputnik. We need something to spark a more general competitive spirit in the U.S. around science and math to keep us competitive with the rest of the industrialized world.”

Sputnik was the spark that fired up the post-World War II American competitive drive.

The tiny spacecraft put the first human, Yuri Gagarin of the United Soviet Socialist Republics, into orbit in 1961.

Americans seized the moment and sent Alan Shepherd into space in 1961 and John Glenn into orbit in 1962, setting the stage for Armstrong’s historic step.

The pace of advancement, from space shot to orbit to the moon in eight years, might have left Americans with the false impression that science and technology move quickly, Coons said.

The reality is that science isn’t TV’s “CSI.” It’s plodding, meticulous and, more often than not, boring, she said.

That probably contributes to what seems to be a misplaced, but broad, dissatisfaction with science and intellectualism in general, Coons said.

The Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that killed seven on Jan. 28, 1986, and the breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, also killing seven, might bear a share of the blame for the newfound American distrust of science.

Bad outcomes, though, are at the heart of experimentation and exploration pioneered by Gagarin, Shepherd, Glenn and Armstrong, she said.

Still, with Americans shrinking from further exploration of space, “Europe has gone the opposite way,” Coons said. “It’s looking to science to solve problems.”

And therein the cosmological rub strikes close to home, Coons and Archuleta said.

A resurgence in what’s become known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is what Archuleta and Coons hope to spark in western Colorado, not just for space exploration, but for the kind of discovery that stirred them when man landed on the moon.

Coons watched Armstrong’s adventure flicker through the window of a television store in Bern, Switzerland. Archuleta was working at his engineering company in Denver and listening on a radio, completing something of a circle.

It was Sputnik that inspired him to seek an education at the University of Colorado School of Engineering, then take up engineering as a career.

Now one of the driving forces behind the CU mechanical engineering degree being offered through Mesa State College, Archuleta said he wants to see the Mesa State program offer a more complete menu of engineering programs.

The math and science center, he said, has the embryonic makings of a technical institute.

That’s long-term thinking, to be sure.

But it’s also the kind of thinking that seems to have gone out of style and needs to be revived, Coons said.

The cathedral builders of Europe, after all, never shied away from projects because they wouldn’t live to see their works completed, she said.

Navigational advances, Teflon, new ways of handling elements such as titanium and nickel ... the list of things the space program has developed goes on and on, including one big one, Dr. Dave Proietti said.

He was discussing with his son, Dylan, the value of the space program, “and then it dawned on me, if we had not had the program going on and the credibility to put a man on the moon, I don’t know that we would have had the credibility to stand up to the Soviets” with what was described as “Star Wars” technology, the ability to threaten destruction of missiles fired from earth with space-based lasers.

“To me, that really hit home,” said Proietti, who worked in fire-protection systems at the shuttle-launch facility from 1982 to 1987 and is now a Grand Junction orthodontist.

It’s not as though the space program is dormant. A lunar reconnaissance orbiter launched last month is circling the moon, scouting sites for a manned landing, and a section of an Atlas rocket is to be fired into a moon crater to kick up a dust storm and allow observers to spot evidence of water on the lunar poles.

And there have been significant unmanned expeditions into space, such as the Mars Rover, Coons said.

For Proietti, who decorated one of his dental treatment suites with space memorabilia, mastering the leap to the moon and beyond is more than a technical achievement. It’s a fulfillment of destiny.

“It’s the most patriotic thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Proietti said, sounding much like one of Coons’ cathedral builders. “You feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

There is an emotional draw to the moon and the space beyond, Archuleta said.

Present for a space launch, Archuleta remembered the flush of birds that picked up on the roar of the blast long before human ears did, the giant burst of flame, the drive through the sky and the tear that welled in his eye.

Shooting for the moon was more than mastery of method and metal, he said.

It was a mindset, one that science and technology could fire anew, he said.

“I was in a place and time,” Archuleta said, “when we could achieve anything.”


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