November 24th, 2008
08:12 AM ET

Rocketting through space – and time

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/TECH/space/11/14/shuttle.endeavor/art.endeavour.gi.jpg caption="Space shuttle Endeavour lifted off at 7:55 p.m. ET last Friday, en route to the international space station."]
Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

A former colleague once lamented that – contrary to the expectations of our early 1960s childhood – space travel for the average American man and woman would not be realized in our lifetimes. Fewer than 500 humans have soared beyond Earth’s grasp; military test pilots, specially-trained astronauts and, more recently, a handful of wealthy people who have paid for passage aboard a Russian craft.

I thought of this tonight as I stood in my driveway and stared into the evening darkness. At 6.13 p.m., as forecasted, a bright light traveled from southwest to northeast, emerging above the trees across the street and passing overhead until its disappeared through trees behind the house. It had the look of a star and cruised at an altitude well beyond that of anairliner.

I craned my neck to follow the space shuttle Endeavour, gradually turning my body 180 degrees. I marveled at this rare sight with the kind of uninhibited emotion (“that’s really neat”) you give up passing from childhood into adolescence and then adulthood. Today, with satellites beaming live signals of the world to itself (including from the shuttle, thanks to the NASA channel), it is easy to lose the wonder of seeing something with your own eyes.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet satellite called Sputnik, whose visible presence (and beeps monitored by radio operators) jolted the United States out of its complacency, sparking a Cold War space race. Before President Kennedy delivered his May 25, 1961, speech setting this country on its way to the moon, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin already had become the first human in space. Presumably the greater race was won 40 years ago next July 20.

I am of sufficient age to remember how a television would be wheeled into my grade school classroom so that we could watch black-and-white images of a launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida or the recovery of an astronaut after his capsule survived (would it?) the fiery re-entry and splashed down in the ocean, where a helicopter and divers deployed from an aircraft carrier would retrieve our newest hero. Shepard, Glenn and Schirra; these were our ambassadors to a world previously the domain of science fiction.

I had a plastic space helmet, complete with visor and NASA emblem, and when I wore it I could imagine being aboard that Mercury or, later, Gemini, capsule. American boys added astronaut to their other ambitions. American girls waited for a role model until Sally Ride in 1983, two decades after Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first female cosmonaut.

The space program is more a set of iconic images – some inspiring, others tragic – than a set of dates. But if you are of a certain age, July 20, 1969, stands out. I sat on the edge of my parents bed, watching those flickering images as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to step onto the lunar surface. It was one week before my 14th birthday and after assassinations and riots and in the midst of war on the other side of the world (its horrors shown on television to a degree far greater than today’s conflicts), this was a moment of unity, as a nation (indeed, a world) watched in awe.

Not until the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, would a date in the space program near such significance. By that time, shuttle flights had become so “routine” that only CNN, which debuted in 1980, aired the catastrophic launch live.

Almost 40 years after the flight of Apollo 11, I think back to those childhood flights of fancy and my colleague’s lament about space travel for the average American. Today the American mission to reach the moon has become a metaphor used when discussing the nation’s seeming difficulty in setting a goal, marshaling the necessary resources and achieving what once seemed beyond our capability.

That’s the perspective of a middle-aged adult who, for a couple of minutes tonight, stared wide-eyed at a bright light moving across the night sky.

Filed under: David Schechter • NASA • Raw Politics • Space
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Tammy, Berwick. LA

    I was one in 1969 and grew up with space being part of who we are. I was a senior in high school when the Challenger crew was killed. I was one of those kids crying while watching CNN live in my school library. I've been to the space centers everywhere they'll let a tourist in. And I still tear up every time a spacecraft and crew launch out or come home. The opportunities space has for us are endless, the knowledge is endless, and I fear we as a nation forget how amazing this all still is sometimes. Thanks for reminding everyone of the importance today.

    November 24, 2008 at 10:08 am |

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.