The space program ain’t what it used to be

    It surprises even me that I just couldn’t get excited about the recent space launch.
    Granted, it was to be the first time in nine years that American astronauts launched from American soil. Since 2011, astronauts have had to go to Russia and train on that country’s spacecraft, at a cost of $86 million a seat. I hope they got a good in-flight movie.
    The launch also marked the first time a commercial aerospace company — in this case, Elon Musk’s SpaceX — took humans into earth orbit.
    As achievements go, neither of those really launch my personal rocket ship.
    The reason that’s surprising is that when I was a kid, I was a freak for space missions.
    I’m too young to remember the Mercury missions, but once things got serious in the race for the moon I was all over it.
    In fact, when I was a kid, my favorite toy was my G.I. Joe Mercury space capsule, which came with not only a full spacesuit for the doll, but a 45-rpm record of an actual space shot (I think it was Alan Shepherd’s, which actually lasted about 15 minutes). I still have all of it, plus the box it came in, but I played with it a lot; it’s pretty battered, therefore not worth much money to toy collectors. I probably wouldn’t sell such an important part of my childhood anyway.
    When the actual space shots were on, I was glued to the TV. And of course, one of my most vivid childhood memories was the Apollo 11 moon landing. My Dad and I lay on the floor, our customary TV watching position, and watched with a wonder I can still recall. And I remember exactly what it looked like; the blurry black-and-white shot of Armstrong stepping onto the moon is perfectly and accurately vivid in my memory.
    My memories, like I suspect most peoples’, are narrated by Walter Cronkite. I ate up the technical details, or at least as much as a kid could.
    There are a couple of more vivid memories aside from that first moon landing, although one of them is kind of silly.
    The TV networks got pretty creative in their coverage. I particularly remember one mission where, for some reason, there were times they couldn’t show video from the actual moon. So, they built a tabletop topographic representation of the landing area and peopled it with little astronauts. The astronauts were a couple of inches tall and had magnets on the bottom of their feet. To show what was going on, puppeteers under the table used magnets to make the little guys walk around the moon surface. It looked like the coolest toy I’d ever seen; had they been available, I would have begged my folks for one.
    The other memory is Apollo 13, and that’s mostly a kind of sense memory. The entire world really was on tenterhooks, and every little update or bulletin was a white-knuckle thing. It wasn’t until the movie came out that we all found out what genius it took to get those three men back to earth.
    But even the most “routine” moon shots were high drama.
    Part of that was the nature of the beast. It was science fiction come to life, and quickly. The moon landing happened only 66 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, which is an amazingly short time to get to another heavenly body, if you think about it.
    And then there was the technical achievement. Space is big and planets are small, and the idea that you could light a candle that pushed people to one of those other pieces of heavenly real estate and get them back was daring in concept, let alone in practice.
    Those space missions also had a goal that was easy to understand. Get there and get there first, then come back. It doesn’t get much more simple than that.
    Americans have short attention spans, though, and a lot of people just weren’t that excited any more by the time Apollo 17 went up three years later. It came back, and that was the end of the first part of America’s space story.
    When that story continued, it was in about the least exciting way possible. The international space station was kind of cool in a “2001: A Space Odyssey” kind of way, but it’s not like they were doing anything real exciting to watch.
    Likewise, it was kind of cool the space shuttle could take off, come back and take off again. But that palled after two or three missions. It might be a little more technologically sophisticated, but in terms of its mission, the space shuttle was a glorified delivery truck. It’s kind of hard to get jacked about watching a high-tech semitrailer take off to deliver supplies to the space station.
    I wonder how much the Challenger and Columbia explosions were the result of NASA even getting a little bored with its work. Until Challenger, it had been a long time since an American astronaut had died, and NASA got a bit complacent. That bred carelessness and left us with some truly horrific images.
    So here we are, launching again from American soil and privatizing our space efforts. Within short order, it’s going to be just another business, although if you have a gazillion dollars you’ll probably be able to hitch a ride to the space station (at least until another ship explodes and they stop taking paying passengers until they figure out what happened).
    I guess that’s to be expected. The first live TV broadcast was a big deal, too.
    But I wish NASA would come up with an idea for a mission that would once again capture the public’s imagination. A trip to Mars would be great, but that’s a ways off, given the problems in this country and the lack of political will to do anything about them. During Apollo, there was debate over whether NASA should be going to the moon while the Vietnam War raged, but you could at least make a case for it. And for now, I have no stomach to watch a launch in which the rocket has TRUMP embossed in large gold letters on the side.
    I hope I live long enough to see men walk on Mars, but I’m not holding my breath. Still, if they do, and I can get a little relief map with little astronauts with magnets on their feet, you can bet I’ll buy it.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: breeze.editor@jpipapers.com

 

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