On April 12th, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was recovering from a gunshot wound he received in an assassination attempt. The Soviet Union seemed the better of the United States in the Cold War. Most Americans did not have access to cable television. Mobile telephones were elite contraptions found in cars. The personal computer as we know it was basically still a dream. The internet was slow, clumsy and in the hands of the military and academics. Microwave ovens and old VCRS were not even common in American homes.
Also on that date, NASA launched the first mission into space of his daring space shuttle program. The space shuttle named Columbia, with two crew members, launched into space, beginning a thirty year run that would change the world and see the world change.
To understand the magnitude of the space shuttle, one must grasp how difficult it is to go into space. It takes tremendous energy to break the Earth’s gravity and go into space. It is dangerous stuff. While the United States mastered that, it had not mastered doing that with a space vehicle that could land on Earth and be used again. Until the successful mission of Columbia in April of 1981, even elite scientists thought such a thing was relegated to the science fiction writers. Columbia proved them wrong and started a trend toward to technology.
NASA has always been on the cutting edge of technology. The drive to achieve great things in space has given Americans, and all human beings, big dividends here on Earth. Many of the technological wonders we now take for granted have their roots in the space program.
The space shuttle program was no different in what if offered. NASA developed a fleet of shuttles that serviced space stations, put satellites in orbit, and did research that made differences on a seemingly routine basis. For five years, traveling in space on the shuttle seemed routine. People forgot how daring and challenging the feat was.
Then, in January of 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its ascent into space. The sadness and shock of America and the world were real, but then President Reagan insisted that the shuttle program go on. Reagan was on of those leaders that thought America dared to do great things.
And, do great things from then on the shuttle program did. All sorts of achievements in space where made. As those achievements were made, Americans found more and more high technology in their daily lives. Lessons learned and well maintained satellites and space stations made technology part of every day life. It was not all the space shuttle, but NASA programs were right in the middle of making things like the internet, cable and satellite television and mobile phones readily available for the masses, among other things we now just take for granted.
We also took for granted as routine the space shuttle missions. That ended on February 1st, 2003. After seventeen years of routine space travel, and almost 22 years after its first flight, Columbia was destroyed reentering the Earth’s atmosphere. Seven lives were lost. Political finger pointing began.
The shuttle program continued, but with a huge political backdrop. Investigations were launched. People questioned costs. That led to President George W. Bush issuing a directive ordering NASA to shut down the shuttle fleet and seek other space vehicles. President Obama went one step farther when he took office, and ironically for a liberal Democrat, moved to shift space travel and the maintenance of the satellites that are now so much a part of daily life to be handled by private entities.
Thus, last night, the space shuttle Endeavour touched down on Earth, bringing to a close the one of the most successful and daring things the United States and, frankly, humanity has ever done. Despite the 14 lives lost during the thirty years of the space shuttle program, the space shuttle made space travel routine, it gave us incredible advances, and showed to the world just how much the United States gives to the advancement of the world. When one ponders the achievement of the space shuttle and how it and NASA changed the world in the last thirty years, perhaps it is fitting the shuttle program ended last night.
For, we now seem to live in a time in which politicians on the right and the left do not believe in Americans achieving great things. They tell us to tax. They tell us to cut. They tell us we can no longer be who we are. They tell is, as the President said, to “eat our peas.” They tell us as the TEA Party folks say that we can no longer afford the price for being great in our achievements and how we treat one another. Indeed, the death of something like the space shuttle program seems to sum up the sorry leadership we Americans get on the right and the left today.
For, we are the nation that went to the moon. We are the nation that created NASA and the space shuttle program. We are the nation that forever changed the world for the better. Having leaders who tell us, on the right and the left, that we no longer are, what Ronald Reagan dubbed, “the shining city on the hill” that “is the best hope for mankind,” defines how we as a people have declined. We must dream. We must have things like NASA and the space shuttle. We put aside those on right and left filled with fear. We are Americans. We dare to great things and to treat one another well.
Thank you, NASA. Thank you to every single astronaut and worker on the space shuttle program for a job well done. You showed the greatness of the United States of America. Congress and the President should learn from you.