Crash Landing (or teaching your dog to drive)

    Peter McKay Mon Sep 18, 6:49 AM ET

    I read in the news last week that a lady in Hohhot, China, crashed her car into another car while attempting to teach her dog how to drive. It seems that her dog loved to sit in her lap with his paws on the steering wheel, and so it naturally occurred to her that he did this because he wished he could drive. Ms. Li wasn't a complete dolt, of course, she worked the brake and gas pedals herself, and at least she rode with him until he got the hang of it.

    [​IMG]The Chinese news agency Xinhua didn't give her first name or any other details, but we probably shouldn't make all that much of an effort to get to know her, because I'm pretty sure if you get into a car accident in China, especially with your dog at the wheel, they shoot you on the spot. As such, we probably won't be hearing much more about her. The bigger surprise in the whole story was that there was more than one car in Inner Mongolia.
    I have some sympathy for the dear departed Ms. Li, because this summer I did something almost as stupid. I let my son, home from college, have the keys to my car. All went well until one midsummer night when he was on his way home from work. Up till then, he'd just left the car dirty, smelly and low on gas. But that night, in stopping off to see some friends, he somehow managed to slip off of what most of us consider the roadway, slide down a little hill and "bump" into a telephone pole.

    I say "bump" because that's what he called it. It didn't do much damage to the telephone pole, but our big SUV came close to being totaled. Despite the minor impact (sorry, "bump"), the entire front end caved in, with the radiator ending up in a "U" shape. This kind of damage, I've been assured, was designed into the car. It's all part of new safety technology that allows the car to take all the impact. The teenage driver remains unhurt, but the automobile and the parents' bank account are both pretty much destroyed.
    As a result of this, our car has been out of commission for most of the summer while we wait for various parts to arrive. I've been driving around in a loaner car, a rolling trash can with rust spots and one mismatched wheel that shakes whenever I put on the brakes. I get sad looks from passing friends and neighbors, who assume, quite reasonably, that I was fired from my job.
    I've spent a lot of the past six weeks thump, thump, thumping down the road, fuming over how the folks in Detroit purposely designed something so big and heavy, so expensive, and yet so very disposable that it collapses like it was made out of lemon meringue at the slightest impact.
    But in another story this past week, I read that the European community's first spacecraft to the moon, the SMART-1, ended its mission by, ironically, crashing right into the surface of the moon. The crash was intentional, they said. The idea was that scientists could look at the cloud of dust raised by the crash to get an idea of what the moon is made of.

    Somebody at NASA might have told them that we'd already been there, played golf and even brought back big chunks of the stuff. The Smithsonian has so many moon rocks that this summer they decided to build a barbecue in the back yard out of leftovers from the Sea of Tranquility. They easily could have sent some to the Europeans. All this is a far cry from space missions when I was a kid, where scientists spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep spacecraft from bumping into things. The idea was to get it there, get it back again, and then put it in a hall at the Smithsonian so third-graders could climb all over it.

    All of this, however, has kind of lifted me out of the funk I've been in all summer. I'd been thumping along, cursing my luck, my choice of cars and, most of all, my firstborn. But hearing what they did with the SMART-1 made me see things in a new light. I may drive a rust-bucket junker, but my son, at least, has all the qualifications to achieve more than I did.
    Just think: My son, the astronaut.