The photo was small and buried inside the newspaper. It showed a man and a woman, in shirtsleeves, hugging each other. The caption said the man had been promoted. It was a clear, black-and-white photo, and I had to look twice before I noticed the words “in-orbit.”
They were astronauts. In space.
When did rocket flight become so common? When did going to the stars become like going to the store for milk and bread? Did you even know we had a space mission up right now? Could you even name the craft, or how many people are in it, or what its purpose is, or when it’s due to splash down?
Do they still splash down?
No. They don’t. The current mode in astronaut travel is the space shuttle
— and if those words don’t tell you how far we’ve come, nothing will. A shuttle? To space? Aren’t shuttles those little vans that drive to and from airport hotels? Isn’t space the vast frontier where just to get there requires zillions of units of fuel and thrust — not to mention years of research? A shuttle? Like there’s a little schedule posted at the station?
Right now, someone’s son or daughter is above the clouds, where the sky turns purple and the air is too thin to contain dust particles so the universe becomes an ocean of stars in peek-a-boo distance. We can shuttle there? It is a sign of remarkable progress.
And a sign of something lost forever. A giant leap
Do you recall July 1969? The month and year will always go together for me. Summer camp, in rural Pennsylvania, where baseball, canoeing and comic books were our blissful existence, uninterrupted by the real world.
Except one night. They woke us from our bunks and herded us down to the mess hall. The entire camp population was there, kids sitting at the wooden tables, lying on the floor, wiping sleep from their eyes as they gazed at a black-and-white TV. The picture was fuzzy, but you could make out what you needed. An astronaut, in white; the ground, in gray; the sky, in black. He made his way down the ladder, slowly, as if under water, and through the static we could hear him say, “One small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind.”
His big boots softly impacted the earth, but it wasn’t our earth. It wasn’t Earth at all. It was the moon. The moon!
The mess hall exploded in applause.
Space! Less than 10 years earlier we had sent our first monkey into orbit, and shortly thereafter came the heroic Mercury astronauts, Scott Sheppard, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper. They were our flying Vikings, heroes; there were Life magazine covers, and model rockets sold at every hobby shop. Each launch was a big event. We would listen on transistor radios as they counted, “Three, two, one . . . we have ignition, we have liftoff . . .”
Then we’d trace the flight, as the booster rockets fell off, the ship peeled away, until all that was left was a capsule that landed in some far-off ocean, and we held our breath until the recovery ship found it. Imagine this, a brave astronaut, having journeyed through the rarest air, now sitting inside a capsule, listening to his breath, waiting for rescue.
No wonder John F. Kennedy insisted on the space program. He was a Camelot president, and this was the last new kingdom. Off we go, into the deep purple.
The stars were ours. Launches aren’t news anymore
Unfortunately, as with many possessions, once we could own them, they no longer interested us. Do you know how many men we have put on the moon? A dozen. That’s right. Twelve men have stood on crunchy soil and looked up and seen the Earth. Can you name any beyond Neil Armstrong?
Do you have any idea how many space shuttles we’ve launched? Almost 60. Nearly 300 different people in space, including a congressman. There is talk of sending celebrities. Talk of charging for tickets.
And because of this, space has lost its magic. Nobody watches the launches anymore. They barely make the evening news. Real-life space travel now pales beside the movie version; Star Wars effects are faster, video games are more colorful. Never mind that they’re not real. Such imagery has squashed our imagination and taken the wonder out of the universe. Now the space program is mostly jokes about telescopes that don’t work, regret about the Challenger disaster and beamed-down photos of shirtsleeved workers inside a rocket ship that might as well be a bus in Atlantic City.
The mystery is gone. What a shame. How spoiled a nation we must be when hurling someone to the stars is a ho-hum event.
When we left that mess hall in July 1969, I remember looking at the moon and thinking maybe, if I squint real hard, I could make out some speck of the ship. It was a dumb idea, but borne in wonder, and we don’t do that kind of thing now. I’m not sure we even look up anymore.