Blast Off

I suppose it was inevitable. The final launch of the space shuttle brings the curtain down on American manned space travel.

Or does it?

Mine is a generation that grew up with space travel. Riveted to our black-and-white Zeniths with a frosty glass of Tang as astronauts strapped themselves into a tiny capsule and blasted off into outer space with a half-million pounds of rocket thrust at their backs. 

Reverse countdown:

One (Mercury)... Two (Gemini)... Three (Apollo).

Godspeed, John Glenn.*

In the early years, the question arose: Are astronauts heroes?

Seems to me heroism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder’s not sure space work was any more – or less – heroic than schlepping through the jungles of Southeast Asia battling Communism. (Do dominoes fall in outer space?)

I built models of the Saturn 5 rocket and had framed color photos of Gus Grissom on my bedroom walls. No helicopter gunship models. No photos of Green Berets or Robert McNamara.     

In the fall of ’67 at Wichita's South Pleasant Valley Elementary, my favorite teacher, Jimmie Poe, quizzed us on the material used to coat the bottom of the capsule for re-entry.

After dozens of wrong answers, my buddy, Randy Weidner, cocked his head to one side, paused and reflected aloud, “It wouldn’t be Teflon?”

Jimmie Poe was overjoyed. He’d succeeded in teaching us that scientific breakthroughs in the space program had practical, everyday benefit in the Land of Baloney on White with Miracle Whip.  

“It would be Teflon!”

One small step for Randy Weidner. One giant leap for the SPV fifth grade.

It was inevitable because space shuttles, like everything, eventually wear out. And we can’t politically justify the next iteration. The last American walked on the moon in 1972. We launched the first shuttle in 1981. 

Less than a decade.

We choose to go to the moon. Not because it is easy. Because it is hard.

For an entire generation of precipice-approachers who watched what was then KARD-TV in Wichita or its satellite affiliates in Great Bend, Oberlin or Garden City, Major Astro was the bomb.

Every day after school, Maj. Astro would introduce cartoons on his spacescope in Mission Control (the Major’s caps). When cloud cover or flying asteroids prevented him from touching down and the Major was stuck in orbit, he’d show us the cartoons on the spacescope in his capsule.  

“Everything is A-OK and all systems are go!”

I’m not convinced we need heroes, but I’m pretty sure we need purposes and tests. Broad, lofty, poetic ones. My God, we named a spacecraft, Challenger.

"Challenger, go at throttle up."

They slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God.

Right now, given the state of affairs on our planet, we’re looking inward. Arabs seek freedom, European economies teeter, domestic debt ceilings need lifted.

We need to focus some quality time on ourselves. Let’s get the smart people in a room and throw some ideas on the wall.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. These things ebb and flow. Right now, we’re ebbing.

We’ll flow again.     

Explore. Discover. Learn.  

It’ll happen again in my lifetime. I’m certain of it. 

*Best political opposition line I’ve ever heard came in 1984 when Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) was running for president:

“What on Earth has he done lately?”