Friday morning, I was up predawn working in the yard, taking advantage of the cool air before the summer heat chased me inside. Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest – well, at least in the Portland, Oregon, area. Sweating and covered with dirt and leaves, I jumped into my truck for a fast dash to Home Depot to pick up some much needed bits and pieces for the many projects I have planned this summer.
I parked the truck just as the last five minutes counted down on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis began. As I listened through the count, including the few minute delay at the 30 second mark, I found tears flowing down my face. I didn’t feel sad, but it was clear, I was touched by this moment, the end of an era that so influenced my generation.
Over the years, we watched rockets go up and come down, defining earth’s gravity. Skylab was built, then fell into the earth’s atmosphere and burn up. I cheered when the International Space Station finally added the final piece to make it habitable. Hope rang in my soul that someday I would travel out to the stars as we seemed to race forward towards that goal.
As a fan of Star Trek, my teenage years revolved around repeat episodes on television of the classic original version. Having sat with my family to watch the first launch of astronauts into space and those famous first steps on the moon, which resulted in an amazing pastel painting my mother did of the rocket’s launch out into the great unknown, space travel filled my imagination.
I didn’t consider Star Trek “science fiction.” I came late to my passion for science fiction. Star Trek was adventure. It was the imagination of life in space made real. It was a powerful representation that Earth could get its shit together, figure out how to solve our problems and work together so we could go out and help others solve their problems and get their shit together. It was patriotism at its finest.
As I grew up, I saw Star Trek devices become a normal part of our lives. Doors that slid open as you approached, doctor’s beds that tilted, medical scanning devices get smaller and more portable, computers get smaller and portable, computerized tablets and handheld computers…cell phones that look like Starfleet communicators…the list is so long.
I also watched our lives be changed by the research and innovation by NASA and its supporting agencies and businesses. Besides the powdery drink, Tang, and pens that could right upside down or at any angle, science, technology, and medicine were dramatically changed by the space race.
I was 22 when the first flight of a Space Shuttle, Columbia, went into operation on a mission to deploy a communications satellite. Over the years, I watched most of the early flights, so excited and dreaming of being on one of those flights.
In 1986, I watched with millions around the world as Challenger was launched carrying the first teacher into space, only to be shocked and dismayed as the shuttle blew apart into tiny segments. My heart broke as we waited too many years for the next launch, and I held my breath through the entire first three or four minutes, my thoughts lifting the rocket into the air safely.
Brent and I were honored to be at the December 4, 1998, launch of the Endeavor on its mission to visit the International Space Station for the first time. It was a dream come true to stand on the bridge crossing over to Merritt Island in Titusville, Florida, just about as close as you could get without a permit. We screamed with glory along with the hundreds standing with us as the bridge shook beneath our feet and the golden flame boiled out from under the rocket with Endeavor mounted at the top, shoving the reluctant rocket up into the air.
In 2003, Brent and I were taking a rare vacation day together in Jerusalem. We were visiting the shop of a friend of ours. He heard a bunch of yelling outside and ran out and back to shout at us that Ilan Ramon, Israeli’s first astronaut, had just been killed when the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re-entry from its successful flight to the International Space Station. We joined our friends in grieving the tragic loss, and suffered the pain of knowing there would probably be another long delay before the shuttles resumed businesses.
The race for the stars seemed to move at a sluggish rate. Gone was the driving courage to push our way into space. Russia had turned their space program into a Disneyland ride. The moon remains uninhabited and not even visited for decades. Fear of death and too much avoidance of risk and mistakes stalled the space race, even when China and other countries announced they were going to take space on. The United States started to turn isolationist and way too conservative, and my hopes died.
Sitting in the truck, my tiny shuttle through the space of my world, I cried not for the last flight of the space shuttle program. I cried for the loss of our drive to fulfill our imagination’s need to explore, to risk, to seek out those promised new life and civilizations, the confidence and courage to boldly go where no one has gone before.
As the radio interviewers started talking to people watching that last flight and getting a feel from the crowd, it made me sick to hear people say they were not disappointed that the space race was over, that it was time to put that money to better use, fixing the problems we have here in this country with people out of work and the economy so screwed up.
They are so wrong. Thousands around the country and the world are now losing their jobs, if they haven’t already, in the industries that support NASA. The lives that would be changed and possibly saved by space research will go unchanged and unsaved as interest in innovation dies down with the lack of new discoveries in minerals, chemicals, physics, and all the sciences found beyond our planet. With few new places to explore left on the planet other than the ocean, what will happen to the people born to explore and push new boundaries?
If we are to survive the current economy and state of affairs, we have to have something that ignites our spirits and sets our courage on fire.
Forty-four years ago, Gene Roddenberry and JFK’s commitment to space gave us such hope and courage, the faith that we could push through all our limitations to be better than we are. JFK’s famous speech pushed the United States into high gear to beat the Russians to the moon, which led to people living in space circling the planet.
Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a united Earth leading the way with a Federation of strength and hope in outer space led to four spin off television series, a huge book publishing industry, multiple movies, international fan gatherings and conferences, and a huge multi-million dollar industry and passion for science fiction and the dream of turning the fiction into reality.
Maybe we have to step back and recall the past to remind us of what we are missing without new worlds to explore.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas