What on earth happened to the U.S. space program? I was not alive during the space race of the 50's and 60's, but as a child I was endlessly fascinated by the triumphs made by our country during those heady years of exploration. I would spend countless hours reading about the endless competition between America and Russia in those days, fighting it out for control of the heavens. I would watch footage of President Kennedy's speech vowing to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60's and I imagined what it must have been like to be a part of that concerted effort to dream and do the impossible. The cynical adult in me realizes now that much of Kennedy's lofty ideals were motivated by a "biggest stick on the playground" mentality to show up the Communists, but the sheer notion of sending men from this planet to another world is too powerful of an idea to dismiss as just jingoistic posturing. There is something magical and wonderful about looking up at the moon and knowing that once upon a time, men from earth trod on its soil and looked back at us from afar. To this day, I still get choked up watching footage of the moon landings. For a brief, shining moment, we stepped out into the universe, fulfilling the promise of our species as bold explorers seeking out the unknown. The entire world watched those grainy images from the Apollo 11 cameras being beamed back to our living rooms, holding its breath in awe with the notion that there is something bigger at work in the cosmos than us. The universe is a vast, infinite canvas of marvelous wonders and on that day in July 1969, this planet was witness to that. But to me, the most amzing part of it all is, we actually pulled it off. Our primitive, infant civilization was able to rub enough sticks together to actually get off this rock we call home and go visit the one next door. And it was all done without desktop computers, internet access, and Starbucks coffee. Amazing.
So it brings me great sadness to read that the space shuttle program has been grounded again, thanks to a piece of foam insulation half the size of the laptop I'm writing this on. FOAM INSULATION??? 36 years ago, we sent men to the moon strapped to the top of a Saturn V rocket without major incident, and yet today we're losing spacecraft left and right because of FOAM INSULATION. I have nothing but respect for the astronauts who travel into space, and the men and women at NASA are nothing short of American heroes to me, but when pieces of the shuttle can break off and actually destroy the ship, it's time to rethink the whole Endeavour. The shuttle being grounded is heartbreaking, but what's even more heartbreaking is that it's still being flown at all. The space shuttle is outdated and has outlived its usefulness. It was a marvelous machine, but time has caught up with the great craft and like all used cars, it needs to be sold for parts to make room for a new car in the garage. NASA needs to stop trying to fix the shuttle and instead it needs to come up with something better, something safer, and something that will get us back out into space as quickly as possible. Exploring the heavens, for a brief, incredible moment, united the world in a way nothing else has. And with everything else happening in the world right now, we sure could use something like that again. But I hate to say it, that will never happen if we keep pinning our hopes and dreams on a 20 year old spaceship.
I wish Kennedy were still around. He'd get us off our asses and into space again.