Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our Hopes Once Flew So High

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This past week, as the mud wrestling in the U.S. Congress over the debt ceiling continued and people began to wonder just how deep the slime pit in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp actually goes, a couple of events seem to have gotten pushed to the back of people’s minds. The events were (1) the 42nd anniversary of man’s first walk on the moon; and (2) the landing of the final mission of Atlantis, the last space shuttle. The space shuttle’s last hurrah got some passing mentions throughout the week; it seemed the moon-walk anniversary barely got noticed at all.

That’s a shame. Maybe if we were paying a little bit more attention to these two events, they might remind us of just how far our aspirations can go and the great things we can accomplish if we try.
As I watch the old videos of the moon landing today (courtesy of YouTube), I can still remember that sense of wonder as I sat in the darkened living room of the house I grew up in and watched the grainy pictures being beamed back to us from so far away.
I remember the tension in the room as Eagle, the tiny, buglike lunar exploration module, descended toward a lunar surface that appeared to be littered with boulders the size of Volkswagens.
I remember being impressed by the cool, almost drawling way astronaut Buzz Aldrin called out altitude and velocity as mission commander Neil Armstrong guided the vehicle down, while an increasingly tense voice from Mission Control called out their rapidly dwindling fuel supply (“Sixty seconds. ...THIRTY SECONDS...”). Even at 7 years old, I knew this was huge.
Then, of course, there was that amazing moment when a ghostly figure dressed in a bulky white space suit gave a little hop off the ladder and set his feet, for the first time, on the surface of another world, saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that really didn’t make sense. Later I read that Armstrong admitted he’d blown the line, that it should have been, “one small step for [a] man.” Since he’d been up for 24 hours and was, you know, on the freakin’ moon, he can, I think, be forgiven.
The end of the space shuttle program marks the end of another amazing chapter in human history. At its initial roll-out in the late ’70s, the concept — a reusable spaceship that could take off, land on Earth, and then do it all over again — seemed both revolutionary and completely familiar, at least to us science fiction readers.
It was intended to be a cheaper and more practical way to haul humans and cargo into orbit, and it was going to be vital in the construction of the first truly international space station. Not only did the program accomplish that goal of giving us a toehold in space, but it also launched satellites that, among other things, have let us look deeper into the universe than ever before.
One unintended consequence of the shuttle program, however, was that it made space travel seem almost routine. Back in the day, we used to get pulled out of class to watch the “moon shot,” as we used to call it. Networks would cancel other programming to follow the progress of the moon missions.
Eventually, however, shuttle launches and landings got mentioned way down around the 15-minute mark on the network news and “below the fold” in most newspapers — unless something went terribly wrong, as it did on two dark days when shuttles and their entire crews were lost.
Maybe that’s why a lot of the public seems to have lost its fascination with space exploration and its own sense of wonder at the spectacle of men and women riding into the sky atop pillars of fire, on voyages of discovery that even Columbus could never have imagined.
There was a time when we looked to the stars. A time when we tried to accomplish great things, not, as President Kennedy said, because they were easy, but because they were hard. Now, it’s all about what we can’t do, what we can’t afford. Aspiration and the ambition to do great things, to take on seemingly impossible challenges as a nation, have become something to sneer at.
I hope, someday soon, we can start looking up again. We need it. Not just as a country, but as a human race.

1 comment:

J. E. Medrick said...

I spent three years out of the country, living and working in Japan. When I got home, I was full of the culture of a different land, excited and willing to talk about it. People were curious, but the discussions always seemed to end with, "But I would never do what you did!" and I often found myself wondering, "WHY? I learned so much, had so much fun, you admitted X would be cool to see... what glues your butt to your couch??"

When I taught, the greatest gift I received was the wonder in a kid's eyes when they understood what I was telling them, the first time - or being able to use what they've learned on their own. Those "Aha!" moments still warm my heart. Why do so many adults lose that sense of exploration?

YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward, Thief
Adult: Shackled