Lessons learned from the space program

Published 6:33 pm Saturday, July 9, 2011

Somewhere hidden in a cabinet at home, I have a scrapbook of newspaper articles that detail our nation’s early efforts to put a man in space and, later, on the moon.

My mother made this scrapbook for me. I’ve never asked her why she did it, but I gather that my interest in the topic — much like that of others my age — began when I was quite young. In fact, I’m told that my obsession was such that my first word was “moon.”

I thought about that scrapbook on Friday as I watched the Space Shuttle Atlantis throw off the bonds of gravity and hurl itself into space on the final U.S. shuttle mission and the last of the nation’s planned excursions by man into space.

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Other U.S. astronauts will fly to the International Space Station, but NASA will pay the Russian Space Agency to fly them there. And private industry is set to take over the duties of orbital spacefaring. For the first time in 50 years, there is no concrete plan for the federally funded exploration of space by man.

My heart nearly broke as I watched video Friday afternoon of the shuttle closeout crew saying thanks and goodbye with signs they held in the closeout room at the top of the gantry, with the closed door to the shuttle cockpit in the background. When they rode the elevator to the bottom of the launch pad prior to the launch, they would be leaving their jobs for the last time, wondering how they would ever use those skills in new careers.

More than 9,000 people in and around Florida’s Kennedy Space Center will lose their jobs as a direct result of the end of the shuttle program, and with no solid plans for the next manned space program in the works, another 14,000 or so who run businesses that support the massive space complex there are expected to be jobless soon. And the ripple effects will eventually expand across the nation, as companies that supplied engineers and equipment to NASA begin to feel the loss.

But I can’t help feeling a personal loss, as though a dream has been snatched from me.

There was a time when, like many boys my age, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut. It became clear in high school, as I struggled with my Advanced Math course, that I didn’t have the right stuff to make that dream come true. But there was always the knowledge that I’d have the vicarious thrill of watching other Americans go into space.

When I was four, I watched the first man, an American, step onto the surface of the moon, and I learned, at least subconsciously, that people are limited only by their ability to dream. At 16, I watched the first shuttle climb into space, and I learned that American ingenuity could conquer the toughest of challenges. Less than five years later, when I watched as Space Shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after launch, I learned that nothing good comes without sacrifice. And then, in 2003, when I saw the news footage of Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrating on its return flight over Texas, I learned that diligence is a part of the price of safety.

Watching Atlantis lift off on Friday, I think I learned something else. I learned that a nation without vision, without a dream, is doomed to consume itself with its own pettiness.

Whether that dream is to be found in outer space is a matter of debate. What’s clear, though, is that failing to attempt great things will doom the United States to mediocrity. Conversely, aspiring for greatness will lift us all. That’s what every one of those newspaper clips in my scrapbook tells me today.

Godspeed, Atlantis.