I was born before Sputnik. Yep, that old.
I grew up with the space age – the X planes, the Original 7, JPL sending Ranger to photo-bomb the Moon, JFK and LBJ, the whole enchilada.
I was crushed with Mariner 4 evaporated the Martian atmosphere into insignificance and when Mariner 2 turned the lush steamy jungle planet Venus into a sulfuric acid oven. So many good science fiction stories were instantly pulped.
I watched Alan Shepard’s launch on a big black and white TV wheeled into our elementary school classroom. The same for John Glenn. When many of my friends kept baseball cards and knew the statistics on their favorite sports star, I kept track of astronaut flight assignments, and watched the Croft puppets do a real time simulation of Gemini spacewalks.
When Apollo 7 flew, I smuggled my transistor radio into middle school to listen to hourly updates on the flight from the radio news. When she found the clandestine box, my teacher thought I was listening to the baseball playoffs like my classmates. But I wasn’t.
So, when it comes to the space, I got the bug early and hard. The value of space exploration – robotic as well as human – is an article of faith for me; hardwired in from my earliest days.
Some years later, my college roommates could not believe that I spent three 7-hour days (during finals week!) in the dorm TV lounge watching the Apollo 17 moonwalks live. On the other hand, I couldn’t believe nobody else was watching with me. (Yes, having to go to a special room where there was a TV was a thing then).
But a constant throughout those days was the criticism: ‘Why should we spend money on space?” “We have problems enough here at home we should solve first!” “My taxes are too high, and this is just tomfoolery!” And after the first time: “Been there, done that, why do it again?”
Maybe you thought that everybody was in favor of Apollo. That was not the case, it was always controversial.
A couple of years later one historian offered this retrospective: “How different would the world have been if the Soviet Union had gone to the moon in 1970 and the biggest contribution the United States made to world affairs in that decade had been the war in Viet Nam?” Yes, a very different world would have resulted; an alternate universe that should cause us all to shiver.
So, when I hear people question the spending proposals for renewed space exploration, I think ‘how old fashioned’ or maybe ‘how short sighted’. Heard it all before; it was wrong then and it is wrong now.
I appreciated the entire summer of Apollo remembrances. There were well-deserved tributes properly done. If young folks think that everybody was in favor of Apollo, then we have not told the complete story.
And one last bittersweet thought: When I came to work at NASA shortly before STS-1, space cadet that I was, I thought we would do this ‘shuttle’ thing for a couple of years, then assemble the space station as an embarkation point, and then head out for permanent outposts on the moon and to Mars and other places in the solar system.
Nope, I never expected to spend my entire professional career on the good old shuttle, with the ISS coming along right at the end. How did we let that happen?
We need to keep that outpost on the frontier staffed and operating but more we need to take the next step. Because I doubt if we ever have a 50-year celebration for the space shuttle – not like they will for the first boot print on the red planet.