Saturday, April 21, 2012

Seeing Space Shuttles Discovery and Enterprise Stirs Emotions and Frustration

This week I went with my wife, daughter, and grandson out to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (Udvar Hazy) at Dulles to see the departure of the space shuttle Enterprise and the arrival of Discovery.  It was remarkable to see the assembly of astronauts (including John Glenn) and the two space shuttles parked nose-to-nose.  With the Marine drum and bugle corps playing you could not help a tear welling up in your eyes at the sight of the two shuttles.   

When my daughter was younger, we attended Space Camp (yes, we’re geeks) and going to the Smithsonian this week rekindled that spark in me about the American space effort.  I expected a massive crowd, obviously so did the Smithsonian.  Yes, there were a few thousand there, but it was a paltry showing for such a historic event.  This was going to be the last time the public would ever see two shuttles together again. I understand that it was a Thursday, but this was something very special.  I would have thought every high school in the area would have had a bus or two there – but there were hardly any kids.  It was mostly older adults, those of us that remember fondly the importance of our space program.  

When I was a kid the space-race was everything.  We watched every takeoff, every splashdown, every moment we could.  We knew the crews by face and by names.  These were not wannabe’s who wanted publicity just for being alive (like celebrities today); these men (and eventually women) were genuine heroes.  I remember watching the first moon landing, and the last.  Seeing the shuttles there, proud workhorse Discovery and prototype Enterprise, I remembered my youth when I too wanted to go into space.  I wanted to be an astronaut – heck, a lot of kids did. 

For me, that wasn’t in the cards.  I had to find another way into space.  I ended up writing science fiction novels.  I got to the stars, but only in my mind.  As I watch my two-year-old grandson I wonder if he is even going to have a space program to be proud of.  While my trips into space are flights of imagination, I can only hope and pray that he actually gets a chance to go boldly into the great unknown.   

Seeing those magnificent pieces of technology and knowing the teamwork and thinking behind them made me realize that we need to get back into space.  We need a goal, perhaps a landing on Mars…anything!  We need something as a nation that we can all rally behind as we did back in the 1960’s and 70’s. With the end of the Cold War, the fizzling end to the War on Terror, and our own pathetic apathy, there is nothing that brings us together as a nation the way the space program did.  I write this with a hint of shame and a dollop of embarrassment.

Oh, I understand the pundits that say, ‘we have better things here on Earth to spend the money on.’  They ignore the contributions of space program to technological innovation in our country.  They turn a blind eye to the fact that the Apollo and Shuttle missions got tens of thousands of kids interested in engineering, computer science and space exploration.  These people only want to see the money dumped into short term social programs here on Earth – opting for a quick economic fix rather than having shared goals and ideals as a nation.

The space program was a social program.  It dumped billions into the economy of our nation.  Towns sprung up in places like Coco Beach and Huntsville Alabama.  It turned an oil-town like Houston into a thriving metropolis.  The space program employed small businesses, big corporations and generated hundreds of thousands of jobs – no – careers, for many people.  You want economic stimulus?  The space program was it on steroids! 

Time eroded all of our enthusiasm for space though.  I stopped watching liftoffs after the Challenger explosion.  When I saw a liftoff after that fateful day came with a hesitation and fear that it might happen again.  The loss of Columbia stung just as deeply. We had gotten reckless and careless and it came back at us. In typical American political maneuvering, this became a call to cut funding on Capitol Hill…the exact wrong response.  Congress is more interested in assigning blame rather than leading our nation…but I digress.    

We lost good men and women to the exploration of space, damn good people.  We dishonor their memories by turning a blind-eye to the space program now.  Part of the space program was that we looked beyond our own materialistic needs and instead did something that benefited all of mankind.  We went out there, into the black unknown, but we stopped and came back home because we lacked the courage and conviction to not carry on the mission and continue out to other worlds.  Shame on us. 

I have not forgotten the International Space Station and the six individuals up there every day conducting experiments that might change our knowledge of the universe or cure disease.  They pass by in the night sky, a white dot, and we all seem to ignore what they are doing up there.  They are the last bastion of our vanguard of men and women with one foot in the final frontier.

We need to get our collective act together.  We need to go to Mars, and beyond.  Yes, there are risks, but exploration is a part of who we are as a people.  Going back means jobs, stimulus, and our future. 

They can’t take my dreams and memories from me…yet.  And as long as a few of us still believe in the future of space exploration, the hope yet remains.  Tonight, look up and remember there are still men and women up there on the ISS, still keeping the dream alive for the rest of us. 

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