When I was a little kid, they used to roll a TV into our grade school classroom so we could watch space shots. Watching a grainy, black-and-white image of the rocket igniting, breaking free of its hold-down bolts, and slowly climbing into the crowds was a thrill beyond belief. And it was a thrill not only from a scientific viewpoint (back when science was revered, as opposed to the tendency for certain right-wing elements to revile science). It was also thrilling because it was ours. It was something we, the American people, were doing as a country, prodded at first by the young, forward-looking President and then continued in his memory. When JFK said “we will go to the moon,” the first reaction from the scientific community was something along the line of “he’s nuts.” The second reaction, though, was “Well, let’s see if we really can do that.” NASA and the space program was born. Something like over 40,000 people worked together to invent rockets, capsules, rocket fuel, telemetry and everything else needed to get men onto the moon and back safely. Along the way came a myriad of things we take for granted now, everything from transistors (vacuum tubes wouldn’t do on a spaceship) to velcro and teflon. There was, of course, Tang, and smoke detectors (after a launch pad fire killed 3 astronauts).
But all the “things” we got out of the space program are really beside the point. What we got more than anything was that we went along into space. We were there with John Glenn when he orbited the earth, and we took that first step with Neil Amstrong. It was — and is — a point of national pride. We did it. No other country on earth could do what we did. Talk about “American exceptionalism.”
Watching the shuttle take off was no less thrilling than watchin Shepherd all those years ago. We have come to think of space travel as routine; of the Shuttle as the “space truck,” no more interesting than a Starving Students moving van blocking our street. Every so often, we were reminded that exploring space, even when it means being the delivery van for the International Space Shuttle, is still dangerous business. Challenger and Columbia reminded us of that. Those two space shuttles are not living out retirement in some museum; their crews are not enjoying retirement on earth. So there was still that moment, as the rockets ignited in glorious high-def TV with the digital surround sound shaking the house, when everyone held their breath. Would the huge boosters lift the shuttle off the ground? Would it reach orbit without a mishap? It did, of course, a picture-perfect launch for the end of the shuttle program.
NASA officials have been quick to note that this is not the end of the US space program. Design and planning continues on a “heavy lift” (that means Big Mother) rocket and capsules to make humans into space, beyond earth orbit, on to the moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. But at this point, it seems to far off to be real. Perhaps when we start seeing test rockets going into space, it will become more real again.
In the meantime, the push to “privitize” everything will give us commercial space travel. You and I probably won’t ever have the chance to take a ride on Virgin Galactic. A couple of hundred thousand a trip is a bit steep for most of us. And, unlike Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle, those flights won’t be “ours” anymore. I’ll miss the thrill