I had almost forgotten about the final space shuttle launch when a friend sent me a text reminding me to turn on the television.
There sat the Atlantis, on the launch pad. I think the countdown was at T-minus 10 minutes when I tuned in. Apparently there had been some question over whether the mission would be a go or not -- something to do with rain in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center.
Shepard Smith seemed really excited, though, that the countdown clock was ticking toward the highly anticipated launch of the shuttle's final mission. Yes -- I watch the big events on Fox News. So sue me.
There was a brief delay in the countdown at about the 30-second mark, and then it was all systems go, followed by ignition and liftoff. I was thrilled as the giant ship began to defy gravity, slowly at first, before picking up velocity and soaring toward the heavens. I was also proud, because manned space flight, for most of my lifetime, has symbolized that the United States can do anything if we set our collective minds to it.
I was also a little saddened -- OK, a lot saddened -- because I realized that once the Atlantis re-enters the earth's atmosphere and touches down, we, the people, will be out of the manned space flight business -- at least for the foreseeable future -- and dependent on the Russians to ferry us back and forth to the International Space Station. I was reminded of the words of Chester A. Riley. "What a revolting development this is."
I know. I know. Many people are of the opinion that we will all be better served if the costs of manned space exploration are assumed by the private sector. A lot of folks say that the shuttle program has served its purpose and the Obama administration is spinning the discontinuation of manned flight as merely a temporary interlude in order to pave the way for bigger and better things.
Maybe and maybe and maybe. Those are the opinions of many and opinions are like ... well, you all know what opinions are like. Let me tell you what I know for certain. The United States used to could send humans into outer space. The United States used to could send men from planet Earth to walk on the moon. We used to could -- but now we cannot. I fear that is indicative of decline, not progress.
Many people will have a hard time understanding why those of my generation think the last flight of the Atlantis is such a big deal. But folks who came along when I did grew up in the midst of the space race. We stood in our back yards at night, shielding our eyes with our hands, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sputnik streaking across the night sky.
We worried that the Soviet Union was more advanced than us. We felt threatened and we wondered if the fact that their space program was superior meant that their way of life was also superior. The space race was, to a large extent, about the attributes of a free society and capitalism and democracy versus communism, and may be the better system win.
People of my generation gathered around black-and-white television sets and watched Alan Shepherd be launched into space. We heard a vibrant young president promise to put a man on the moon and return him safely within a decade -- because America, he insisted, could do anything. And in those days, we could.
My generation watched with pride as John Glenn circled the globe three times. We celebrated every launch and breathed a collective sigh of relief with every splash-down. Our astronauts were our heroes -- first those wearing Mercury patches on their sleeves and then those wearing Gemini patches and finally those in the Apollo program.
We had setbacks, to be sure, but in the summer of 1969 -- as promised -- we set aside all business on a hot Sunday in July and watched Neil Armstrong take "one small step for man," and although he insisted, accurately, that it was a "giant leap for mankind," we all knew that it was a bigger step for the USA than for those in other nations. We had won the space race.
Our space program continued to soar. It helped improve the lot of mankind and foster cooperation among nations. It even played a big role in the collapse of the Evil Empire that was the Soviet Union.
Those are the things that my generation remembers about manned space flight. The space shuttle program has long served as a reminder that we, the people, could do anything. That is why my generation was saddened by the end of that particular era. It was an American era.
We used to could put a man on the moon.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns,
com or www.newtoncitizen.com.