Where were you at 9:45 a.m. EST on December 12, 1965?
What? You don’t remember? Maybe you weren’t even born yet? I remember exactly where I was: watching the launch of Gemini 6 on television in my parent’s living room in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Or more accurately, watching the attempted launch of Gemini 6. After the Titan rocket engines had ignited but before the rocket lifted off, an umbilical cable fell off causing the rocket engines to shut down. Procedure dictated that the crew was supposed to eject from the capsule, but since in tests of the ejection seats the test dummy had been smashed against the unopened capsule hatch, Wally Schirra decided to take his chances that everything was going to be OK if they stayed where they were. Seeing the aborted launch I remember thinking at the time, “I’m not sure what just happened, but that can’t possibly be good.”
How about 10:56 p.m. EDT on July 21, 1969? No? I was watching Neil Armstrong step off the landing pad of Eagle, the Lunar Landing Module of Apollo 11, and say, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”. I’m still amazed that my parents let me stay up that late. Since it wasn’t a school night, I guess it was OK.
OK, how about 10:21 a.m. PST on April 14 1981. Still no idea? I was standing the conference room at ADR Ultrasound in Tempe, Arizona, the company I worked for after graduating from college.We had set up a television on the conference table so we could watch the landing of the space shuttle Columbia at the end of the first space shuttle mission. As one of my co-workers said at the time, “Well what do you know, the son-of-a-bitch works!” Yes, it did.
I wanted to be an astronaut. Almost every kid did when I was young. It was new, it was exciting, it was adventuresome … in short, it was cool.
But then I got glasses in the 5th grade, and that was the end of that dream. Back then, only military pilots could be astronauts, and military pilots had to have 20/20 vision. So I was never going to be an astronaut. But I didn’t lose interest in the space program: I watched it from afar; encouraged by its successes, disappointed by its failures. To me, it was still cool.
Which brings us to 11:29 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2011, the launch of Atlantis on the final space shuttle mission, and (perhaps more significantly) the end of the nation’s manned space flight program. I didn’t watch it; maybe I should have, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Not so much because the shuttle is being retired: it was a technology that had reached the end of its useful service life. I understand that. What makes me sad is that there’s no plan to replace it.
Yes, I know about SpaceX and the other private concerns that are developing manned space flight capability. I’m quite encouraged by their work and the results they’re achieving, and I wish them well. But I think there’s something missing in not sending men into space as a national effort. It seems to me to be a sad comment on the state of the national psyche.
I can’t say that the space program was the only reason I chose engineering as a profession, but it had a big impact. The space program made science cool, and since it was cool I studied it and loved it. Other kids felt the same, and we’d build models of rockets or shoot off actual rockets in vacant lots. Do kids even build models any more? Would a national space program have the same effect now? I wonder. Maybe it’s too late and the United States has already passed a tipping point. Maybe as we outsource manned space flight to the Russians and possibly later the Chinese it’s just another symptom of the diminished nation the United States is becoming.
I hope not.