Posted by: Calmseas (Mike) | July 25, 2011

The Space Generation: The Next Giant Leap

I was born in the last weeks of 1956.  On my birth date, not a single piece of man-made hardware circled the earth in space.  It would be nearly nine months before the Russians would launch Sputnik, the very first human-made object to orbit the earth.  By the time I was 12 years old, America was landing men on the moon!

What a 12 years that was for technology, for advancement of humans into space, for America and American exceptionalism.  NASA manned programs inspired schoolchildren across the nation.  We were glued to our Television sets in the afternoons after hurrying home from school to watch the continuous coverage of the current space flight.  I particularly remember watching the Gemini flights live as astronauts docked with a second, unmanned “Agena” spacecraft—this is where I first learned the definition of the term “rendezvous.”  On other Gemini flights, astronauts threw open the hatch and floated free in space, away from the space capsule, tethered by only a thin, life-sustaining umbilical cord.  Names like Schirra, White, Young, and Cernan still bring back memories and bring on goosebumps when I hear them or see them in print.

Who can forget the feeling of triumph and exhilaration experienced on that summer  day in 1969 when we first landed men on the moon!  Imagine that.  Men now walked on a terrestrial ball that for millennia was only an object for sky-gazing while keeping one’s feet firmly planted on Mother Earth, good-old terra firma.  If I live to be 100, I believe that the day Neil Armstrong took that “one small step for (a) man” will have been the most significant day for humankind during my lifetime.

Until the moon landing, and for a while after it, space shots where covered on television from beginning to end.  And the public ate it up!  Then the public began to lose interest, and NASA began to lose funding—or maybe it was the other way around.  The last three moon shots were canceled, even as plans where being laid to launch the first space shuttle in 1977.  The first shuttle finally got off the ground in 1981.  In the meantime, the void was filled by Skylab, America’s first space station, and the heralded Apollo-Soyuz linkup in the middle of the cold war in 1975.

The space shuttle program made space travel nearly routine, at least in the eyes of the public.  Launches and landings of the shuttle were no longer covered live on network TV, as they were in the heyday of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, though they were carried on cable news channels, at least in the early days.  There might be a mention of an ongoing flight in the newspaper, but if you walked up to the average “person on the street” from 1981 to 2011, he or she probably wouldn’t be able to tell you if there was a space shuttle in orbit at that moment.   Media interest and public interest began to wane early into the shuttle program, and it has all but evaporated in recent years.  Media interest and public interest have a curiously eerie symbiotic relationship.  As goes one, so goes the other; and you can never be quite sure which is leading the way.

And so we have arrived at today.  Today, the United States has no active human space program.  Atlantis, the final flight of the space shuttle program, landed back on earth a few days ago, and the spacecraft is headed to a museum.  We will rely on the Russians to get us to space for the foreseeable future.  Have they “buried” us as Khrushchev suggested they would back in 1956?  Perhaps at least in terms of space exploration, they may be turning the shovel over in the dirt.  The Russians now have a lock on travel to and from the International Space Station and into earth orbit in general, which leads the mind to run off toward all kinds of wild and frightening scenarios and ramifications.  And now we have the Chinese and their space capabilities to add to the mix.  And then there is Iran, a country on a fast-track toward developing its own space capabilities.  It is quite possible that we will soon be threatened by one or more of these countries from space, and we will be powerless to do much about it.  How have we managed to get ourselves into these straights?  And perhaps more importantly—with no clear direction and goals for a future in space—what now will inspire the current generation of US schoolchildren to compete with the brightest minds around the world and motivate them to work hard at math and science to keep our nation at the cutting edge of technology?  What are their dreams for the future, aside from iPods and video games?

I am from the space generation.  Proudly so.  The generation before me viewed space exploration as a waste of time and money.  The generation after me seems to be ambivalent about it at best.  There appears to be no leadership coming from Washington these days concerning where we are to go from here.  But as for me and my generation, we will never lose that youthful excitement about all things space.  We know that the next “giant leap for mankind” has a name.  It is called Mars!  It now increasingly looks like we may not get there in my lifetime, but we will get there just as sure as man for centuries has met his destiny by setting sail for the horizon, and not looking back.

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Responses

  1. Very NICE article !


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