As I listened to the TV announcer describe Endeavor’s final lift off I was struck with a sense of loss. Not because Houston won’t be the center of space exploration any more, although that will hurt. Not because humankind’s quest of the unknown has slipped into neutral, or worse stalled out. But, because we’ve lost our nerve.
There’ve always been good reasons not to go into space. In 1961 we were mired in a winner take all arms race with the Russians, our spirits and coffers low. They taunted us with their Sputnik and tested us by orbiting Yuri Gagarin.
Then Alan Sheppard rode a ballistic missile on a 15 minute suborbital blast. It energized us all. We didn’t have the cash for a moon shot, or an inkling of how to pull it off, but a daring President harnessed our enthusiasm with another challenge. On September 12, 1962 at Rice Stadium John F. Kennedy announced to the world “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”. The gauntlet was thrown. We were risk takers then. Targeting the moon with make shift equipment while playing nuclear chicken with the Russians was brash.
But, once the game was on we never doubted ourselves. We just hitched up our britches. When reporters asked Sheppard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, he replied, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.” Swashbuckling, confident, and irreverent, the astronauts were us. They put a spring back in our step.
Times were different then. We rode to school without helmets and drove cars without seat belts. But, we put John Glenn safely into orbit. Every kid didn’t get a trophy, but failures didn’t intimate us. The death of three astronauts in 1967 only strengthened our resolve.
For 9 years we held our breath during count downs, celebrated successes, and mourned losses…together. Each made us stronger. We learned by doing, not debating. In July of 1969 we pulled off the greatest technological coup of all time by landing men on the moon.
For the next 30 years we didn’t have a map, only a direction. The rest we took on faith, in ourselves. Space shuttles were a counterbalance to a self indulgent me generation whose views had turned inward. Rebounding from the loss of two ships underscored the resilience of not only the program but our national character. Despite our differences, we all watched with pride each time the swept wing dream machines desended from the heavens. They, and we, still had the right stuff.
I can’t explain when it happened. One day we began finding reasons not to reach higher instead of ways to make it happen. Risk/reward ratios replaced guts. We stopped expecting greatness.
So this July, 42 years after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, the launch of Atlantis will mark the end of the manned space program. The last tree to fall in the New Frontier. Our one remaining larger than life, star spangled success story poisoned by back room politicians and electoral triangulators who’ve never in their lives taken a risk.
Shame on them. And shame on us for letting them get away with it.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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