This is a very sad turn of events for me as it appears that I will have witnessed both the zenith and the nadir of the manned space program within my lifetime.
I was a kid in Boy Scout camp when I first watched the Russian “Sputnik” satellite orbit overhead; it looked like a star moving slowly through the sky. It frightened Americans that a hostile nation (Russia) could potentially develop a strategic advantage over our national security. Looking back at that time when our Military-Industrial Complex was fanning the flames of the Cold War, I see today that our fears might have been greatly overstated. Nonetheless, it did spur our leaders to take a more aggressive effort to move man into space even though the true motives at the time might have been intentionally unclear.
Space travel was every young boys dream back in the 1950’s. Astronauts were our heroes, our role models. I remember when Disney came out with a series of space travel educational animations: Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond. In entertaining Disney style they explained the complex physics of space travel; acceleration, weightlessness, mass, cosmic rays. I couldn’t get enough of it. Just a few years ago Disney released the Tomorrow Land series on DVD. I promptly bought the set.
Then in what for me was a most profound stroke of luck, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on my 20th birthday, July 20, 1969. It seemed that the heavens were calling specifically to me.
But over the decades the inertia to break from the bounds of our planet has fallen into obscurity. The Shuttle program might even have fallen victim to its own success. I recall that the original goal of the shuttle program was that commuting to and from space would be considered routine. It accomplished exactly that.
Serious planetary scientists will agree that, in all practicality, it is far more cost effective, pracitcal and safer to send unmanned vehicles to explore our universe. The Hubble telescope has been immensely more successful in accumulating scientific data than was originally imagined. Other unmanned probes have traveled for decades, skirting the back yards of the planets and their moons. The earliest of our missions have now traveled entirely out of our solar system. Yet we are no nearer to sending humans on such long and risky missions.
And yet unmanned probes, and the remarkable information and pictures they send back, don’t quite touch that core sense of true “exploration” that exists within our hearts and minds; it doesn’t address that strong desire within us as a species for placing a human foot on unfamiliar soil for the very first time.
Astronomer Neil DeGrasse-Tyson recently on TV decried the loss of funding to our manned space program. He also had been inspired to science by the lure of adventurous astronauts severing our tie to Mother Earth. DeGrasse-Tyson worries that with the elimination of the manned space missions, where will our young people look to today to inspire adventure like those heroes who inspired us back in the 1950’s? Where now are the new frontiers?
I have often confessed to my children that I believe that my generation has seen the best times that Man has ever had, and ever will have, on this planet. The demise of the manned space programs is one of many losses that I believe move to confirm my sense of loss.
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