Saturday, July 2, 2011

Death of a Dream

Where there is no vision, the people perish. - Proverbs 29:18.

It’s a week before the final launch of the shuttle Atlantis, and I’m watching a PBS show on the Columbia disaster. The thirteen year old boy sitting ten feet away wants to know why I won’t turn it off to look at a funny internet video. I don’t know how to explain to him that retrospectives are all I have left of my childhood dreams of space. And thanks to the Obama Administration’s dismantling of America’s manned spaceflight program, he won’t even have that.

This is such a visceral issue for me that I’m not even sure how to write about it. I was a kid of the Apollo era. While the generation before me remembers the moments when President Kennedy was shot, and the one after benchmarks at 9/11, for my group our touchstones were in space. We remember Apollo 8’s reading of Genesis from space, and the grainy pictures of Apollo 11 on the moon. (Most of us can still recite the first words from the moon.) We remember that these things happened late at night, and most of us saw them with our parents in the living room or in our beds, the whole family living a moment together. We were the ones who stayed awake past bedtimes to follow Apollo 13. We saw the Challenger explode before our eyes, and felt loss a second time with the Columbia. We learned about daring, tragedy, perseverance, and triumph.

Through space, we saw a dream that we all could share. And while many of us, in our childhood ways, wanted to be astronauts, we also knew that just by being an American we were part of that dream. For those of us raised on space, who knew that our future as a nation would take us forward, upward, and outward, manned space flight was not just about boosters and capsules and lunar rocks in a Plexiglass case. For us, the space program was a fundamental part of being an American, about who we could be as individuals, as a people, as a nation. And today, where we’re all adults and our wide-eyed optimism has been tempered by the cynicism induced by moneyed interests and political hacks, watching the Space Shuttle rise from the pad was our last symbol of hope, a final sign that perhaps working together, we could be something larger than what we are.

To be sure, I’m not harboring any illusions about the space program as a whole. For a while I worked in an affiliate support role with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and I have friends who’ve worked in NASA facilities in both Florida and Houston. The space program has not been perfect. There have been problems with design, safety, fiscal care, and mission management. The planned Constellation program undoubtedly had issues to overcome. And while the space program no doubt accelerated technology, I’m certain that we’d still have personal computers, Tang, and Velcro even without Apollo. I also believe wholeheartedly in the unmanned exploration of the solar system and beyond, and would certainly acknowledge that there are a whole host of tasks that robots can do faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than humans.

But to try to elucidate practical reasons for the space program is to completely ignore why we go into space. We go into space because, to paraphrase President Kennedy, not because it is easy but because it is hard. We do it because it gives us something that we may not achieve, but to which we can always aspire. We do it because the infinite reaches of space continually stretch our goals and our imaginations. We do it because only by contemplating the vastness and antiquity of the universe can we address the fundamental questions of the uniqueness of humanity.

We do it because, as Americans, we explore. We expand. We learn. We go farther. And we need men and women to be our vanguard of exploration, because we can’t invest our hearts and souls in a bucket of bolts. We need people to take the risks, to go up and come back and tell us how space feels and looks and tastes and smells, people whose voices we can hear and whose hands we can shake. Space is all about aspiration, inspiration, and destiny. It’s about man.

There’s a practical, and a political, side to this as well. What the administration has done is not just to cut NASA’s budget, but also put thousands of people out of work in the midst of a jobless recovery. It’s hard to fathom that it’s okay to bail out moneyed interests on Wall Street and the auto industry in Detroit, but not consider those workers who support the space program. And if it’s not galling enough that the space program has been wrenched from the imagination of the American people, the President had the nerve to want to come to Florida to see the final launch of the shuttle Endeavor. This is hypocrisy at it’s finest. He’s making sure that he gets to see what he’ll be taking from the rest of us before it’s gone. But hey…it would also be a potential photo op with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the wife of Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly. From what I understand about Rep. Giffords, she’s pretty sharp. I’m sure she would have figured the politics, but scorned the posturing. (While I am not a “birther” by any means, perhaps this is one occasion when President Obama’s childhood abroad during the pivotal years of Apollo puts him out of touch with the rest of us.)

The Obama decision to defund the manned space program has utterly destroyed the idea of a national dream at a time when Americans need to unite more than ever. We’re divided politically, with honest disagreement traded for extremism and hate. Class and income gaps are widening, the standard of living is falling, and the American quilt is being torn into a raft of self-focused groups. We’re a people who find fault in other but deny responsibility, and instead of one nation under G-d we’re becoming a nation of ones unto ourselves. What could always unite Americans was a dream. First it was Liberty, Manifest Destiny, the Great American Melting Pot. For my generation, it was the conquest of space. A nation that was built on exploring frontiers, on doing that which no one has done before, now has no outlet for it’s boundless energies and no single goal to unite the country at a time when those forces are increasingly turned inward in destructive ways. Our leaders are taking from us something very real and precious, and replacing it with nothing.

And so my son is likely to be more absorbed in the world within his room more than the heavens above, engaging the universe through electrons and keyboards and not in real time, in a life devoid of real dreams and real heroes. Sadly, despite my best efforts, he’ll likely have no idea what he’s missing. But given the fundamental lack of vision from our leaders, perhaps that’s exactly the point.


  1. I was deeply moved by your blog posting on this sad ending to an amazing era in our nation's history. I feel extremely blessed to have had the privilege to work in the Orbiter Processing Facility only 25 feet from the Columbia as technicians prepared the thermal protection system for her maiden launch. I watched in disbelief three miles from Pad-B as the Challenger disintegrated behind a plume of smoke. We all rushed inside to turn on the TV monitors praying desperately that the orbiter and crew were still intact and would be able to return to the landing site, only to feel a new heartbreak each time we watched re-runs of the tragedy play over and over. As I watch the final launch of Atlantis at this very moment, I pray the future leaders of this great country realize quickly the importance of continuing to push the boundaries of space exploration. Thank you, Dr. Rodenberg for expressing so eloquently what many of us growing up on The Space Coast with a "rocket farm" in our backyards are feeling right now. May God continue to bless your life.

  2. I DO have real heroes. Never assume.