Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened. -Dr. Seuss

I had a really vivid dream about watching a shuttle launch last night. It was so vivid (and took place with my sisters at my parents' house as a bonus) that it woke me up, and I lay there for a few minutes thinking, "Man, that was a great dream."

I grew up in Florida during the 1980s. The space shuttle plays a starring role in an enormous amount of my childhood memories.

I remember the excitement of those early days. For kids like me, it was the dawn of spaceflight, period. We didn't remember Mercury or Gemini or Apollo. Those things were history book material. I surely understood and appreciated the magnitude of them, just like I understood the magnitude of the voyage of Columbus. But I have no personal experience with either.

To me, seeing the shuttle actually do what they said it would do convinced me that spaceflight was about to become routine.

I developed the obligatory crush on Bob Crippen; bizarre, since John Young was infinitely cuter. I delighted in the fact that during launches and landings, we were allowed to watch TV (TV!) in the classroom. I looked up at space and for the first time in my life, I was pretty sure I had a shot at it.


The shuttle program gave America an abundant crop of ever-changing heroes: Crippen, Ride, Bluford, Chang-Diaz, Collins, Lucid, Musgrave, Thagard. Heck, we Coasties even got one eventually.

And the Reds? The Moon, Lake Placid, and then Columbia. Ouch.


As the years went by, children became adults, adults became elderly, presidents came and went, and nations rose and fell. Eventually, even the Soviets were gone. Still, our space program remained. We might have funded it with chump change, we might have shrugged our shoulders, we might have even ignored it (until a tragedy when we would cover it 24/7 for a couple of weeks), but with few exceptions, we were glad it was there. We funded a full 50% (or $50,000,000,000) of the ISS; it was rather important that we be able to get a few astronauts there from time to time. 

Unfortunately, the never-ending wars, famines, and epic natural disasters of the late 20th/early 21st centuries have made even the most optimistic among us jaded and cynical.  When John F. Kennedy said his goal was to put a man on the Moon in ten years, he meant it. He was unashamed; it was very matter-of-fact. We can, so we should. Find me a politician today who honestly believes space exploration is important and is willing to man up and demand funding for it, and not just on the campaign trail in Central Florida - in Nebraska and New Hampshire and Boise, Idaho, too. They sell America the most ridiculous things imaginable, and we willingly buy it all. They can't sell the exploration of the cosmos? 

I cannot believe this gap is happening. After Friday, the United States of America will no longer launch manned spacecraft for an unknown number of years. (Yes, SpaceX is amazing and I see great things happening there. But no, it is not representative of the nation.)

I love Russia. I love the Soyuz. I love-love Sergei Volkov.  
But now we are hitchhikers, just like South Korea, Canada, Japan, Israel, and billionaires everywhere, if they're so inclined. There's no shame in it for those guys; for us, there should be. Our space program now depends on politicians, not just for funding and maintaining public support, but for keeping the peace. Without a stable, workable peace, we have no ride to the party and we go nowhere. And let's face it, the guys with the keys can be temperamental.

At least we have a manual.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to the thousands of men and women who over the last four decades made the shuttle program so awesome and awe-inspiring and fun, especially Pam. Thank you to the politicians who supported them. Thank you to the men and women who blazed a trail for them. Thank you to the astronauts who gave us so very much. Thanks especially to Garrett, for inviting us into his life and sharing his experiences and for just being an all-around great guy, the sort of guy you imagine an astronaut to be. Thank you to the families who tolerated endless separations and fears and worries and inconveniences, especially Simone. Thank you to the men and women who gave their lives for the program. Thank you from a grateful nation.

The orbiters will soon be all across the nation in museums where they will be walked upon by children who never saw them launch, who never saw anything painted United States of America launch. The smoke trails will disappear over the Cape (the only Cape that really matters, Floridians know) and the tourists will leave too. Or at least, they'll head back to Orlando, never again to venture out into The Real Florida.

The memories, hilarious and painful and exhilarating and heartbreaking, will remain forever.

Photo taken by a high school pal of mine, Jimmy Vernacotola. True story.


No comments: