For one final time, a space shuttle soared over the skies of Florida, and Texas. This time though, it was riding piggyback, atop a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, that NASA designed to ferry our space shuttles around the country. Space Shuttle Endeavor was headed to her final destination. Ironically, the flight took off from the very same runway, where Endeavour made her 25th and final landing.
It seems this year, there are a lot of final things for NASA. We lost Neil Armstrong recently, and now, with the final Space Shuttle, in it's final resting place, America's manned space exploration program is on hold, and maybe all but over. With nothing history making on the near horizon. We are now reduced to hitching rides to the International Space Station from Russia.
Hitching rides into space from Russia. We pay them over 50 million dollars per Astronaut, per trip to a Space Station that America pretty much funded and built ourselves. What would guys like Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom think about this? These are guys who put their lives on the line trying to beat the Russians in the space race, and they did it because they believed in American pride, and American exceptionalism.
Sadly, our President has canceled, and defunded NASA programs designed to keep the United States capable of manned low Earth orbit. He scrapped America's planned return to the Moon, which was to be the precursor for a manned Mars trip.
Pakistan received 4 times as much money from our government this year than NASA did, and today I watched as their citizens were in the streets burning American flags.
Things sure have changed since President Kennedy challenged our nation to explore space.
I consider myself lucky to have been around to watch with wonder, as Neil Armstrong piloted the Lunar Module to Tranquility Base, and then, hours later, took those historic first steps on the surface of the Moon. I was seven years old, and I remember it, as if it happened yesterday.
I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch it. The picture was black and white, as were almost all TV's back then, so it was no big deal. I remember thinking what if there are aliens on the Moon waiting for him. I remember being in awe of the whole thing, and we went outside to look up at the moon, and dream of being up there with them.
Those were days of wonderment. We really felt that we lived in a country that could do anything it chose to do. We were the leaders of the world in my eyes. It may sound funny, but as a child, it gave me a sense of feeling safe. There were no other countries that could hurt us, because if we could send a man to the Moon, we could do anything, and nobody could harm us. That may sound like naive thinking, but to a seven year old, it made perfect sense.
I immediately became a space fan, and was just thrilled to see the Astronauts of Apollo 15, driving around the Moon on the Lunar Rover, or as many called it, the Moon Buggy.
What happened in between Neil Armstrong's historic adventure, and the Moon Buggy, was in my opinion, the most heroic and successful mission of all time. Apollo 13 by some accounts would be considered a failure, but I consider it NASA's greatest success.
It was 56 hours into the trip to the Moon, roughly 200,000 miles from Earth when an oxygen tank exploded, and damaged the spacecraft. Then came the transmission from Astronaut Jack Swigert that would forever be remembered. "Houston, we have a problem."
Thoughts of landing on the Moon were replaced with hundreds of NASA support staff working frantically, trying to figure out how to get our three Astronauts home.
With an unbelievable amount on ingenuity, tireless effort, and probably a little luck, they were able to figure out a way to avert disaster, and get our three Astronauts home while the whole world breathlessly watched.
As NASA continued to push the edge in their efforts, people started taking our space achievements for granted, and the profound interest in each and every mission started to wane, which is kinda sad, but I guess predictable.
That did not stop NASA. Much like the original Mercury program which produced our first heroes, men like Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the rest of the Sacred Seven, followed by the Saturn program, and then the Gemini program, which was the precursor to Apollo, NASA was already working on a space station. Skylab became a reality in the early 70's
Skylab came back to Earth, in 1979 breaking up in the atmosphere with pieces landing in Australia. Two years later, on April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia was launched. I find it bitterly ironic, because Columbia represents a crowning achievement for NASA, being the first Space Shuttle in space, but she was also the last disaster that has befallen our Astronauts, when she burned up on reentry over the state of Texas on her 28th trip to space.
That is another day I will never forget. My family was planning a trip to Florida where my oldest son would be marching down Main Street at Disney World with the high school marching band. I was thrilled at the timing of the trip, because we were going to be able to see Space Shuttle Atlantis take off on March 1st. This for me, was kind of a lifetime dream to see a shuttle launch.
That dream quickly ended when I sat in my den on February 1, 2003, and watched in horror while, mission control continued to hail Columbia with no answer. As it went on, the reality hit home. America had lost her second Space Shuttle crew.
All thoughts of Atlantis left me, and were replaced by sadness. Sadness for the crew and their family, as well as a sadness for the people in mission control, some of whom were visibly grief stricken, but kept professional, and did their jobs, because that's what needed to be done. The time for grief would have to be later.
It's kind of strange in a way, but nobody was really paying much attention when Columbia went down. After the Challenger disaster, folks held their collective breath at the next launch, and for most of the launches thereafter, landings didn't receive a lot of coverage, but as I said earlier, NASA does their work so good, that people get complacent, and take their success for granted. Then something like Columbia happens, and we are all brought back to the reality, that it is a dangerous proposition, sending men and women into space.
From the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad that killed Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White, to the Challenger explosion, and then the Columbia disaster, NASA and our brave Astronauts never wavered. They never backed away from the risks, and they did things that were unimaginable. They broke down every boundary, and continually raised the bar. They made people unbelievably proud to be Americans. They showed the entire world that anything was possible.
I watched Eric Sevareid shed a tear of happiness, as he and Walter Cronkite broadcast Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon, and I have also watched a nation shed tears of sadness when the Challenger and Columbia met their fates. Through it all, the good and the sad, America always had grander plans, and more boundaries to break. Our Astronauts always had more missions to fly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7c-PbfnQuw&feature=related
It hurts my heart to know that there are no more missions for our fearless Astronauts to fly. I do not understand why our President chose to make our Astronauts passengers. We are Americans, and we are the ones who should be flying the missions. Breaking the barriers. Pushing the envelope.
President John F. Kennedy in a speech said: "We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and others too." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g25G1M4EXrQ
That speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962, set this country on a path to greatness. President Kennedy spoke about American exceptionalism. He didn't want us to be one of the rest, but rather the best. The leaders is space, the leaders in meeting challenges, and overcoming obstacles. He spoke of our American exceptionalism being the example for the rest of the world.
Fifty years and 10 days later, our Astronauts are passengers...
Virgil "Gus" Grissom - Roger Chaffee - Edwin White - Greg Jarvis - Christa McAuliffe - Ronald McNair - Ellison Onizuka - Judith Resnik - Michael J. Smith - Dick Scobee - Rick D. Husband - William McCool - Michael P. Anderson - David M. Brown - Kalpana Chawla - Laurel B. Clark - IIan Ramon