HUCKABY: In the space race, America could accomplish anything

Used to could. Now there’s a good old-fashioned Southern expression for you. Old coots that are my age use it talk about past glories.

“Can you ride a bicycle?” a buddy might ask.

“Sure,” you might reply.

“I mean while standing on the seat and whistling ‘Dixie,’” your pal might ask.

And you say, “I don’t know, but I used to could,”

Or maybe it’s “I used to could work on a car and fix just about anything that went wrong with it, but now they’ve made them so dad-blamed complicated. I don’t think they want folks working on cars any more.”

Used to could.

I can’t run with the big dogs at night anymore — but I used to could.

Great Southern term. Descriptive. To the point. Colorful. Everybody knows exactly what you mean, and you’ll know what I mean when I say, “America used to could go to the moon.”

That’s right. Used to could.

I visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston this week. You know, Mission Control and “Houston, we’ve got a problem,” not to mention, “Houston, Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”

You should go sometime. It’s great. You can see actual space vehicles, from the Redstone rockets that launched the early astronauts just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to the massive Saturn Five that propelled the first Americans to the moon. You can also see a Mercury capsule, a Gemini space vehicle and a lunar landing module.

You can touch a moon rock, if you want to, and have your picture made standing behind the very podium that JFK stood behind in 1961 when he announced to the world that the United States of America would put a man on the moon and bring him home safely before the decade was out — not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Basically, you see, we went to the moon at the height of the Cold War just to show that we could. We went to the moon to show that our nation and her people, working within the scope of capitalism and free enterprise, could do anything we set our minds to.

Watching the films and seeing the artifacts that tell the stories of the great space pioneers — Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride — and all the others, reminds us that there was a time in our not too distant past when our country could roll up our sleeves and tackle any problem, solve any riddle, overcome any malady — if we just put our collective minds to it.

The story of space exploration is the story of mathematicians and engineers; the story of construction workers and inventors and, of course, the story of risk-takers. Every time I see one of the tiny capsules that Alan Shepherd and his contemporaries sat in, knees under chin, waiting to be thrown from Earth’s gravity, I wonder what must have gone through each person’s mind as he sat there during the countdown procedure.

It will take your breath away to stand beside an actual Saturn V rocket and then see the relatively miniscule vehicle that three people used as their ride to the moon. Four of us thought we were cramped as we drove my Dodge Caravan across Texas.

The story of space exploration is the story of that awful fire that claimed the lives of three of our finest on Apollo 1, and it is the story of triumph as Neil Armstrong made that “one small step for man.”

It is the story of pride. In Mission Control today hangs an American flag that has flown on the moon twice — in Apollo 11, the first mission in which Americans walked on the moonl, and Apollo 17, the last.

And, yes, the story of space exploration is the story of political infighting. Did you ever wonder why the people controlling the flights are in Texas and the folks flying are in Florida? It’s because President Lyndon Johnson wanted them in Texas.

Yes, they tell an inspiring story at the Houston Space Center — a story of a time when America and Americans could accomplish anything. And they do it in an entertaining way. They have hired the Walt Disney Company to run the tourist part of the program. Talk about a stroke of genius! Maybe we should put Disney in charge of other aspects of our government. After all, we already have a Mickey Mouse administration and a Goofy vice president.

Big sigh here.

Oh, well. Too many Americans nowadays seem to be more interested in what their country can do for them than what we, together, can do as a country. I’m afraid JFK’s vision of a different America has gone the way of manned space flight — which is about to be grounded.

America used to could go to the moon. Now we can’t even stop an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Bob Dylan was right. The times are changing. I’m just not sure they are changing for the better.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.