With the launch of the final Space Shuttle mission, I’m struck by how NASA and space flight has evolved during my lifetime. Not the technology, which is formidable. But the role it plays in my consciousness.
As a kid, I was mesmerized by the early manned space flights. Mercury, Gemini and then Apollo…all captured my attention. I built model rockets, played astronaut in a “capsule” that my friends and I fashioned from a large shrub and old radio and TV parts, and of course, sat transfixed in front of the TV as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
There was a sense of pride and excitement in those days, a feeling that America was doing something no human had ever done. It seemed proof that we could do anything. Optimism and success were the watchwords of the day. Forgotten were the early days of the space program, with its continual failures and rockets exploding on the launch pad. Sure, the Soviets had beaten us into space. But once awakened, the good ol’ US of A had handed those Commies their collective hats. There’s only one flag on the moon, Comrade, and that’s the Red, White and Blue!
Gradually though, something happened. Space flight went from our collective obsession to a series of ho-hum events. In the 3 1/2 years following the first moon landing, 11 more American astronauts walked on the moon. Most of us can’t name more than one of them. (Where art thou, Harrison Schmitt?)
Then came the Space Shuttle. A brief resurgence of interest, soon followed by a sense of the everyday that, in some respects, was exactly what the Shuttle was meant to do: make spaceflight routine. It became so routine that we stopped paying attention.
Then came January 28, 1986. The Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 astronauts on board. We became interested in NASA again, but our confidence and bravado was replaced forever with the knowledge that we are, as always, fallible. 17 years later, the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing its crew of seven. Convincing Americans that space flight was a wondrous and worthy adventure became an uphill battle.
With all the problems in the world, it may seem extravagant to spend billions on space exploration. Government budgets need to be fixed, jobs need to be created, poverty needs to be addressed. But there is still something to be said for exploration, for discovering more and more about the Universe we live in.
Arthur C. Clarke said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The early days of NASA were indeed magical. Here’s hoping that there is more magic to come from NASA.
Heaven knows, we could use some these days.