The Space Shuttle Atlantis took off from the Kennedy Space Center on Friday morning, July 8, 2011 – and as I write this, it’s still out there, flying through space on NASA’s final shuttle flight. The last voyage of Atlantis marks the end of three decades of the U.S. Space Shuttle program – and 54 years since the dawn of the Space Age.
At 53 years of age, I am a true child of the Space Age.
So, why didn’t I feel a greater tug at my heart when I witnessed this last Space Shuttle launch? For the first time in my lifetime, there will be no manned space program – and few people seem to care. New York Yankee captain Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit (a home run, no less) and the World Cup dramatics of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team have gotten more airplay and headlines than the end of a momentous era in American history.
Why hasn’t NASA’s Space Shuttle program captured the American imagination the way the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs did? Maybe it’s because we stopped our manned explorations at the Moon – and didn’t put our footprints on another planet. Maybe it’s because we don’t really understand what the International Space Station is all about. Maybe it’s because we got bored with 130 Space Shuttle flights. Or it might be because the amazing Hubble Space Telescope has shown us that the universe is so vast that man has no hope of conquering it.
As seen by The Hubble Space Telescope: Those aren't stars, folks. They're galaxies.
All I know is that there was a time when American astronauts getting launched into space was the coolest thing ever. Long before we ever heard of “The Right Stuff”, guys like John Glenn, Ed White, and Jim Lovell were even bigger stars than Major League baseball players.
From take-off to splashdown, the manned space flights of my boyhood were always the biggest events of the year.
We were on our way to the Moon. And it was glorious.
My wife Victoria was seven months old when the Space Age began on October 4, 1957 with the Soviet Union’s launch of its Sputnik 1 satellite. The Russians beating us into space freaked Americans out so much that we actually invested heavily in education – especially in science and math – for fear of falling behind. (Fortunately, Eisenhower’s Republican Party was in the White House, not John Boehner’s cynical GOP.)
Just four months after Sputnik, the U.S. put its first satellite, Explorer 1, into space – and the Space Race between America and the Soviet Union was underway.
Explorer 1 was launched on January 31, 1958 and two and a half months later, I was born. That same April week, the Russians sent a dog into space.
Laika, a 3-year old Siberian Husky — nicknamed “Muttnik” by the American press — was rocketed into orbit atop a modified intercontinental ballistic missile. It’s clear that PETA was not operating in the Soviet Union at the time, because Muttnik’s capsule was not designed for recovery. Laika had already passed away in space by the time her capsule burned up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Russian and American space programs were racing to be the first to put a man in space. But first, lower primates were used as guinea pigs. I was eight months old and still in diapers when the first space monkey was shot into the heavens. On December 13, 1958 the U.S. Army launched a squirrel monkey named Gordo on a suborbital flight. Gordo went up and down safely — but he died during recovery due to equipment failure.
A year later, on December 4, 1959, a rhesus monkey named Sam rode a Mercury capsule 55 miles into space. Unlike the unlucky Gordo, Sam was recovered alive in the Atlantic Ocean.
The next month, Miss Sam took her turn in space, successfully testing the Mercury capsule’s escape system on a 58-minute test flight.
Go, Space Monkeys, go!
I was approaching my 3rd birthday by the time the U.S. Space Program worked its way up the Evolutionary ladder to a chimpanzee named Ham. The 4-year old chimp blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1961. Ham’s job was to show that live animals aboard a spacecraft could carry out their jobs during launch, weightlessness and re-entry. Ham passed the test with flying colors, survived the mission, and retired to the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
A little more than two months after we put a chimp in space – the Russians launched a human being.
Four days before my third birthday, on April 12 1961, cosmonaut (“sailor of the universe”) Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth aboard his spacecraft Vostok 1.
The Soviet Union had won the race to put a man in space — but The United States of America wasn’t far behind.
Three weeks after Gagarin’s flight, on May 5 1961, astronaut (“sailor of the stars”) Alan Shepard made a suborbital spaceflight in the Mercury capsule Freedom 7. The first American in space was a Big Deal.
Three weeks after Shepard’s voyage, President John F. Kennedy redefined the ultimate goal of the Space Race, declaring, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
President Kennedy congratulates astronaut Alan Shepard, the First American in Space.
That was some pretty exciting stuff. That was Big Thinking. Kennedy’s ambitious and optimistic vision would ultimately light the way to an era of American dominance in science, math, and computer technology as we raced the Soviets to the Moon. (Tea Party nihilists? Are you listening?)
Almost a year after the Soviets put a human into orbit, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962. Glenn’s achievement was the first I actually remember being aware of as a child, though I was not yet four years old.
A pilot in the Marines, John Glenn was from my home state of Ohio (and would later become a long-serving Senator) – and my fellow Clevelanders were all abuzz with the thrill of our favorite son’s achievement.
A little more than 7 years later, the entire world would be transfixed by the words and actions of another astronaut from Ohio.
The same year that Glenn orbited the Earth, the U.S. introduced Project Gemini to the world.
Gemini was a two-man spacecraft designed so that American astronauts and NASA technicians could develop and practice all the technologies, maneuvers and skills needed to get to the Moon, including the docking of two spacecraft and voyages that were long enough to simulate flying to the Moon and back. Later in ’62, President Kennedy Speech made a speech at Rice University in Houston, summing up the rationale for putting a man on the Moon.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
As kids in the mid-1960’s, we could not get enough of the Gemini program.
Each new launch, each new astronaut and each new spaceflight broke new ground.
Each daring Gemini mission gave us another marvelous achievement, a new source of profound and positive wonder, two new spaceman heroes — and, of course, a cool new plastic model kit to buy and build.
With two tiny astronauts to glue into their seats in that 2-man Gemini capsule.
In March of ’65, astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John W. Young aboard Gemini 3 became the first to change their spacecraft’s orbit.
In August of ’65, the crew of Gemini 5, Gordon Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad, spent 8 days flying in space, long enough for a lunar mission.
By December of that same year, Frank Borman and James A. Lovell had extended that record to 14 days aboard Gemini 7.
Grissom, Cooper, Conrad, Borman and Lovell became household names — and Americans swelled with pride as each Gemini mission brought new accomplishments, and took us another tangible step closer to our national goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon.
In 1966, I was a second grader making my First Holy Communion at St. Rocco’s Church — and Gemini was in its last year, with five missions to close out the program.
Two Gemini astronauts who made spaceflights that year — Neil Armstrong (Gemini 8) and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin (Gemini 12) — would play even larger roles in the next phase of NASA’s drive to make good on JFK’s lofty lunar pledge: the Apollo Program.
Neil Armstrong prepares for his Gemini 8 flight & Buzz Aldrin's Gemini 12 spacewalk.
Astronauts David Scott and Neil Armstrong during tests prior to their Gemini 8 space flight.
To us kids, Apollo was even cooler than Gemini because the space capsule was bigger – and there were now three astronauts to glue onto their seats in our models. But our excitement would come a bit later.
Because the first news we kids heard about the Apollo program was not good. In fact, it was the first bad news we’d ever heard out of NASA since the race to the Moon began.
And it was reallybad news.
The doomed Apollo 1 astronauts testing equipment in their capsule. Gus Grissom is at right.
I was almost 9-years old on January 27, 1967 when the first Apollo crew died in a fire that swept through their capsule during a dress rehearsal for their upcoming mission. The loss of three American astronauts was shocking. We kids had heard that lots of Russian cosmonauts had been killed over the years – their deaths whitewashed by the censored Soviet press — but “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were the first casualties in the omnipotent U.S. Space program that we knew about.
Seeing the grim pictures of the charred Apollo 1 capsule in the newspapers that I delivered changed the way I (and all my buddies) viewed the space program. We were reminded that spaceflight was a dangerous, deadly business — and that no team, not even NASA, wins every time.
It was a lesson we would re-learn two decades later.
Following a series of unmanned Apollo launches that tested every aspect of the program’s equipment and technology, Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo mission after the tragedy that claimed the lives of Grissom, Chaffee and White.
From October 11 to 22, 1968, Apollo 7 astronauts Wallly Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, and Walt Cunningham orbited the Earth for 11-days — testing Apollo’s life-support, propulsion, and control systems.
After the Apollo 1 tragedy, Apollo 7’s technical success gave NASA the confidence it needed to send Apollo 8 around the Moon two months later.
1968 was an exciting year to be a fourth grader. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy shook my liberal parents to the core (I can still recall my confused father waking me to announce that “Rosey Greer just killed Robert Kennedy”) — but Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McClain won 31 games during the “Year of the Pitcher” and Batman was in its final season on TV. Plus — America finally got within reach of the Moon.
Apollo 8 took off on 21 December 1968, and became the first manned spacecraft to orbit another heavenly body when crew members Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders flew around the Moon ten times. I’ll never forget that epochal Christmas Eve broadcast, beamed from Apollo 8 in lunar orbit, in which the crew read passages from the King James Bible’s Book of Genesis. It was the first time we ever saw an Earthrise – and it was one of the most-watched television broadcasts worldwide.
But, half a year later, even more people around the globe would be glued to the progress – and triumph — of another Apollo mission.
In the days leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, you could get a cardboard model of the Apollo capsule and the Lunar Module at Union 76 gas stations. Of course, I got mine.
The Revell model kit was even cooler because it also included the Lunar Lander: the strange, spider-legged craft that two of the Apollo 11 astronauts would ride down to the lunar surface and park in an area called the Sea of Tranquility.
For an 11-year old 5th grader, this was the Greatest Adventure You Could Possibly Imagine. And what made it even greater is that the mission’s commander was a fellow Ohioan, Neil Armstrong – and Armstrong was tapped to be the first man to set foot on the Moon!
Armstrong would be joined on the Moon by Buzz Aldrin – and Apollo 11’s third crew member, Michael Collins, would cruise around the Moon in the command module like a cosmic getaway driver waiting to pick the Moonwalkers up, their pockets stuffed with Moon rocks after the Big Lunar Heist.
Armstrong, Collins & Aldrin: The Apollo 11 Crew.
The lunar lander, Eagle, is landing...
It was the greatest TV show ever – and my Uncle Archie and his family came to our house on Cleveland’s west side to watch the Big Event on July 20, 1969.
At least 500 million television viewers around the world watched as citizen-astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the Moon.
And, while I hate to call out a fellow Ohioan, Armstrong clearly flubbed his big, history-making line!
Armstrong meant to say, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” But our hero didn’t say “one small step for a man” as he put his historic footprint on the Moon — he just said, “one small step for man”.
Pedants would say that rendered Armstrong’s great quote redundant – but at the time, nobody cared.
I still remember the pride I felt delivering The Cleveland Plain Dealer on my paper route early the next morning – trumpeting one of those very rare headlines that took up the entire front page.
(The New York Post does it everyday — but Rupert Murdoch doesn’t run any real newspapers.)
Downstate, in Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, my fellow paperboys were delivering the same triumphant news.
Apollo 11 made good on President Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon within the decade.
Americans had won the race to the Moon.
We didn’t know it yet – but Apollo 11 was the high water mark of the U.S. space program.
Later Apollo missions also had their highlights. In February 1971, Apollo 14 Commander, Alan Shepard (the first American in space) became the fifth man to walk on the Moon – and the first to play golf on the lunar surface.
Shepard took out a modified 6-iron and after a few Moon Mulligans, he hit one good shot.
Now that astronauts were playing golf on the moon, I guess we needed a golf cart up there, too.
In July of ’71, Apollo 15 became the fourth mission to put men on the Moon – and the first to break out the lunar rover! To kids like me, it looked like the ultimate dune buggy. Astronauts David Scott and James Irwin tooled around in the rover, traveling 17 miles across the lunar landscape. The lunar rover was another Space Age innovation – and another cool model to build.
The end of the Apollo Program meant no more moonwalks, moon rocks, lunar rovers…
And a lot less public passion for NASA — and our national space exploration program.
I graduated from St. Rocco’s grade school in 1972 – and I was a freshman at Cleveland Central Catholic High School when Apollo 17 made the sixth and final lunar landing in December of that year.
There would be four long years of high school and four years at Northwestern University before Americans finally got back into space.
During my college years, I might not have thought about space travel at all if it weren’t for Professor J. Allen Hynek’s Astronomy course. Hynek had a passion for space exploration and believed it was foolish to assume that humans were the only intelligent life in the universe. Founder of the Center for UFO Studies, it was Hynek who coined the term “close encounters of the third kind.” (He even got a cameo in the Steven Spielberg’s movie.)
Professor Hynek impressed me with the vastness of space – and while I nearly failed Astronomy, I somehow managed to talk my way into his Honors Astronomy class.
It was a small class of about twenty students, dominated by discussion and Hynek’s wonderful, enlightening stories. My final grade rested on the strength of my final presentation – and I chose my subject wisely: the Space Race.
Professor Hynek had worked with the Air Force and NASA since the days of project Blue Book. He knew nearly every NASA administrator and astronaut personally – and he took my final presentation as a series of cues to launch into anecdotes about his personal experiences during those thrilling years when Americans strove to conquer the Moon – and succeeded. Basically, I co-hosted my presentation with Dr. Hynek. And I got an A in the class.
But by the time I graduated from NU in 1980, the excitement of the Apollo missions seemed like ancient history. NASA wasn’t pushing on to Mars. That was disappointing. So were Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Arab Oil Embargo. And some paranoid cynics were even claiming the lunar landings were faked!
The disillusioned mood was captured in Capricorn One, a 1978 movie in which the U.S. government stages a Mars landing hoax.
Americans needed a morale boost in 1981. Frustrated voters gave us President Ronald Reagan and NASA gave us the Space Shuttle program.
The Space Shuttle was kinda cool at first. I mean, come on – a reusable space vehicle that could land on a runway like a plane? That was really neat.
But by the time the first shuttle, dubbed Columbia, was launched on April 12, 1981, it had been exactly 20 years since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — and no American had been in space in more than 8 years.
NASA’s second space shuttle, Challenger, made its maiden flight on April 4, 1983. Nearly three years later, on January 28, 1986, Challenger was on the launch pad, ready to go on her tenth mission.
By then, the Shuttle Program was taken for granted by many Americans, including me.
Without a sexy, inspirational objective like taking a man to the Moon to fire our imaginations, the astronauts on the space shuttle missions seemed more like lab technicians in space, performing experiments, testing equipment, and building a space station whose purpose was ill-defined and unappreciated by the general public.
Then, just 73 seconds after lift-off – Challenger’s tenth mission turned into a spectacular reminder of the grave dangers of manned space flight.
Challenger exploded during its ascent, killing all seven astronauts on board, including Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year old elementary school teacher. Christa’s starring role as the first teacher in space attracted more attention to this launch than most of the previous shuttle missions.
Largely because of space pioneer teacher Christa McAuliffe, school kids across the country were watching the launch in their classrooms (just as we’d done at St. Rocco’s two decades earlier.)
In a few shocking, fiery moments, the Challenger Disaster became the most indelible image of the Space Program since Armstrong took that first step on the Moon.
And we all learned about “O-rings.”
Seventeen years after Challenger blew up, the Space Shuttle Columbia came to ruin on the opposite end of its journey: Columbia broke up on re-entry into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members.
In a way, Challenger and Columbia were tragic bookends to a Space Shuttle Program that has been largely unsung in the course of 130 missions. This week’s final voyage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis closes the Shuttle Program’s page in the epic Space Age adventure series that has been so much a part of my generation.
Bon Voyage, Atlantis. Prayers for your safe return.
A Parochial Coda:
After serving 24 years as a Senator from Ohio, my boyhood hero, John Glenn – the fist American to orbit the Earth – became the oldest person to go into space.
Glenn was 77-years old on October 29, 1998, when he took his second record-breaking spaceflight, this time aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.
I had the privilege of meeting Senator John Glenn 23 years before his space shuttle flight when I was a high school junior visiting Washington D.C. as part of a Close Up Program trip.
The year was 1975, and it had only been 13 years since Glenn had flown his Mercury capsule in orbit around the Earth.
He seemed larger than life as he spoke to us in that Congressional committee meeting room. He was a real hero — a guy with The Right Stuff.
John Glenn was born on July 18, 1921 – and next week he’ll celebrate his 90th birthday.
Happy birthday, John!
Thanks for the memories.