Not long ago, I had the opportunity to tour Kennedy Space Center. Because the Shuttle program has ended, areas like the huge Vehicle Assembly Building which had been closed to the public for many years are now open. I had mixed emotions on the tour. While I was thrilled to be able to see inside the building where Saturn rockets and Space Shuttle stacks were assembled, I was keenly aware that I was also witnessing the end. The tour guide used the past tense throughout the tour, saying things like “there is the Orbiter Processing Facility, where we used to performance maintenance on the orbiters between flights.” The Space Shuttle Endeavour was being stored in the VAB, and looked as if it should be up on cement blocks as it is being made ready for its new home in a museum. The launch platform for the Ares rocket stands unused nearby as that program was canceled. I found myself wishing deeply that I was not witnessing the beginnings of a huge outdoor museum.
To be sure, the end of the shuttle program is not the end of our involvement in space. There are a number of private companies who have or will launch spacecraft. And at least one who will potentially be the first to launch humans into space some day. NASA has been developing a Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and just announced a heavy launch system to send it into space. But until these come to fruition, the only way we have to send astronauts to the International Space Station is to rent a seat from the Russian space program. And we have no means to launch astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.
So while America’s involvement in space has not completely ended, it has certainly faded from what it once was. For those of us who have been watching, this is something that has been happening slowly for some time now, and the retirement of the shuttle is just the tangible evidence of it. Some might say that given the state of our economy, and the military conflicts we are involved in it may be time for us to take a back seat in space. I say that this is precisely the wrong time to let our space program diminish, because it is a product of what’s best about the American character and spirit. Allowing it to die on the vine impoverishes all of us.
I was born in the fading glow of the Space Race. I grew up in an America that sent astronauts to walk on the moon, launched satellites and built space stations. I was infatuated with the adventure of strapping into a rocket and launching into space. Like a lot of kids I turned cardboard refrigerator boxes into space capsules. I emptied my local library of the books they had on space, rockets and astronauts. All of them showed the space stations that would be orbiting the Earth and bases built on the moon. Space was cool, and the astronauts who went there were my heroes.
Adulthood has a way of tempering the enthusiasm of youth. I did not become an astronaut, we did not build moon bases (but we did build two space stations). And the stuff of adult life tends to crowd out kids’ dreams and force your gaze from the stars back down to Earth. But nonetheless, space remains cool, and astronauts are among my heroes to this day, but now for different reasons.
As I rekindled my interest in the space program as an adult, I realized that these amazing things were done by ordinary people. Consider that when NASA was formed in 1958 the U.S. had launched only one satellite. Nine years later, men had landed on the moon. Now you may think that this was a cold war victory, or a political stunt. But while those things may be true to a certain extent, that does not diminish the achievement. The moon landings were followed by Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars rovers and the International Space Station among many other achievements. All of this was done with the extraordinary heart, intelligence, courage and tenacity of a great number of ordinary people.
In his book Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History, Jim Cullen writes that history is worth studying, because it provides hope “…to succeeding generations that they too can wage and win comparable struggles.” I think that we all have within each of us the courage, the decency and the ability to come together to achieve great things, but sometimes we need to be reminded. Apollo 12 astronaut and artist Alan Bean has for many years painted scenes of the moon landings, both real and imagined. He has said that he is trying to document these experiences in a way that no one else can. While he is doing exactly that, what I believe is equally important is that his paintings are not just the technical depiction of the landings, but also represent the spirit of the people that made them possible.
NASA has had and continues to have some of the finest people our country has produced working for it both in the space craft and behind the control console. Not everyone was a hero or a saint, but these men and women kept the program going despite the Vietnam War, the loss of friends and colleagues in accidents, and the sometimes crushing indifference of the American public. This is where the value of the space program lies – to give us hope that we can overcome any failure or challenge. That is what we will lose if we allow the space program to fade to a memory.