Like many you who read this, my life span is about the same as manned space flight. The 1950s and 1960s were the heady days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and the X-15. I was a giddy, wide-eyed nerd who took it all in (still am, I guess). But those days gave way to the letdown of Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Not great, but we were there.
Then came the space shuttle, first Enterprise's test flight off the back of a 747 in 1978, then the first real flight of Columbia on April 12, 1981. Now, today, the final flight of the last shuttle, Endeavor, as it passed over Tucson on its way to become a museum piece in California.
As I watched the flyby along with hundreds of others on top of buildings and parking garages at the University of Arizona where I work, memories from the last 55 years flashed through my mind. I am tempted to list out names, dates, times, other little odds and ends and trivia from my memory spanning those years.
But I won't. I'm just sad. Between the recent death of astronaut Neil Armstrong and today's Endeavor flight, it's the end of an era. The future is a big question mark. Sure there's the International Space Station - ho hum - and now the United States isn't even ferrying our own astronauts there and back. The strong national pride that was generated by our accomplishments in space is gone. This must be what "leading from behind" feels like.
I'm sad for another reason also. To be sure, NASA and the space program were born during the economic high-water mark of the 1950s and 1960s, in very stark contrast to today's economy. But what really drove our exploration of space was a challenge. The challenge of the Soviet Union, and then the focused challenge, pointedly verbalized by President Kennedy.
Spurred by that challenge, America's investment in space flight triggered a technological boom that hasn't yet stopped. The economic boost from that boom, however, seems to have fizzled out. Skylab, the Shuttle, and the International Space Station have not brought technological and economic advances that the early space program did. Maybe we've reached some kind of limits on that, but America does not now have a technology-producing, economy-infusing, pride-creating challenge anymore.
Such a challenge would pull us together, energize business and innovation, drive technological advances and create jobs, and restore pride in what we as a nation can do. I know, duplicating the space program somehow wouldn't really work; that was the response to another challenge of another time, another era.
But if ever there was need for such a challenge for America, it's time is now.
Tags: Space Shuttle, Endeavor, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, X-15, NASA, Neil Armstrong, Challenge for America
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