Good news has been hard to come by since the coronavirus crisis started. But it came for sure when two American astronauts launched for the first time in nine years on an American rocket, from American soil. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs covered the last few years of the space shuttle program, and was gratified to see U.S. astronauts back on their own terrain.
What perfect timing— the month of May— for two Americans finally to lift off again into space, not from a Russian launch pad in Asia, but from American soil. This pandemic has brought much of our movement to a halt… but not our quest for the cosmos.
As older baby boomers might remember, it was also in May, 59 years ago, that Alan Shepard, in his capsule dubbed Freedom 7, became the first American to soar into space. The space race was on.
And as even younger boomers will remember, that put us on the path to create the Apollo program and win that race against our Soviet rivals, landing six times on the moon. Still, today, only twelve men have left their footprints there. One of them was Alan Shepard, ten years after his first flight on Freedom 7. Nice bookends to grow up with.
After the final mission to the moon, it was 8-½ years before Americans reached space again, this time in the Space Shuttle. It was a magnificent vehicle. All told, there were 135 missions, and I had the privilege of anchoring a 90-minute television broadcast from the Kennedy Space Center for each of the shuttle program’s final 22 flights.
It never got old. Every launch was unique: the weather, the time of day, the trajectory toward the target, a different crew, a different payload, a different mission. But more momentous, with every launch, watching from my anchor desk 3.1 miles from the launch pad (considered the “blast radius,” as close as anyone got, save for a handful of emergency rescue personnel in a bunker), I was infused, sometimes emotionally overwhelmed, with a sense of awe: awe for the power of the vehicle, awe for the brilliance of the engineering, awe for the precision of the flight plan, awe for the courage of the astronauts. The head of NASA’s manned space program once squeezed his thumb and forefinger together right in front of me and said, “We’re always this close to disaster.”
And now, here we are again, astronauts blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center, nine years after the last launch from Pad 39A but still, “this close to disaster.” That’s what it takes to explore the cosmos. So many moving parts, so many forbidding forces, so many unknowns.
But man was meant to explore. Not to ignore the implications for native peoples, but where would we be today without the inquisitive adventurers of centuries past, who crossed into the unknown in their sailing ships and found new worlds? There are practical goals in space travel, as there are practical benefits from the exploration we’ve already seen— from home insulation to fire retardants to polarized sunglasses to freeze-dried foods to solar panels to the Dustbuster. But more important are what separate us from other species: curiosity, knowledge, invention, exploration. Now, from conception to ignition, it is once again an all-American enterprise.
I produced an hour-long program once at Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center— Gagarin was the one human being who beat Alan Shepard into space. As a reflection of the Cold War, it is hidden in a forest of birch trees about a hundred miles from Moscow. For many years now, to get to the International Space Station, U.S. astronauts had to spend months there learning the Soyuz system, because they launched in Soyuz capsules atop Soyuz rockets.
Not any more. As one of our astronauts temporarily based there told me (while living in an American-style two-story clapboard house surrounded by a white picket fence which Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, thought would be a nice touch for our people), the Russians’ procedures weren’t better, or worse, just different. But when he said it, he winked.
With SpaceX building the Crew Dragon capsule that just carried our astronauts back into space from Florida, and with other companies also in the game, NASA now is more the manager of space flight than the galvanizer, but that’s not as big a change as it sounds. Private enterprise has always cobbled the ships together, to carry our modern adventurers out to do what man was born to do. Not even a pandemic can stop us.
Toward the end of the shuttle program, I asked NASA’s then-Administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a four-time shuttle astronaut, whether we’ll ever go back to the moon. “Yes, but we’re in no hurry” he said, summarizing America’s place in space. “Maybe someone will even beat us there. But do you know what they’ll find when they land on the lunar surface? Six flags. And they’re all ours.”
Now, even more flags are in our future. Somewhere. And they’ll be hoisted into space once again by an American rocket, from American soil.