On The Wings of Dreams
Tomorrow, at approximately 11:36 A.M. EDT, the final NASA Space Shuttle mission will thrust away from Mother Earth, closing another chapter in the history of space exploration and leaving my generation yet another reminder of dreams and adventures of the past.
In the early 60s every launch or landing of manned space exploration was huge news. Many times I was gathered with the entire student body of Fifth District Elementary School on the auditorium floor to watch a space mission on the school's only black and white television. We were mesmerized.
Being children we had no thoughts about the space race, or whether the Soviets launched more missions than the good 'ole U.S.A. We were children, grades 1 through 6 (we had no kindergarten,) sitting in one of Baltimore County's smallest rural schools... watching astronauts on TV! These men were smart, brave, and adventurous and actually left our planet traveling into the unknown of space!
Such space related current events drove everything in our curriculum. We talked about science and math. We had art projects about space and planets. There were new library books written about astronauts and space vehicles. Even spelling words were "space" driven. Space exploration was education, excitement and imagination.
Everyone knew the seven Mercury astronauts by name – in their white space suits with the big visor. The whole world watched John Glenn encircle the earth three times, biting their nails wondering if he would return safely. We marveled at the men who walked in space, grieved the deaths of the men in Apollo 1, and watched Frank Borman read from the Bible while circling the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.
The apogee, however, was the lunar landing in July 1969; many a child's dream come true. Proof that science fiction could become reality. No longer did anything seem impossible. If man could set foot on the moon and return, what else could we accomplish? Perhaps anything.
The exploration of space prompted baby-boomers to question "what if?" It led to countless scientific advances. There were many children gathered in elementary schools across our country who watched TV on those mission days. They realized that space stations and shuttles were not an impossibility; it was us who would make science fiction come true.
My grandfather was born in 1897. He witnessed many things prior to his death in 1971. From the first gas-powered farm tractors to men walking on the moon; innovation in his lifetime was constant. As a boy listening to stories, I thought he had seen everything, including the invention of sliced bread and the ball point pen – but no longer.
My generation has witnessed such a boom of invention it is hard to fathom that this pace could continue. Most of society takes for granted the progress we have made in science in our lifetime. Space exploration and astronauts who were my generation's heroes were a prime reason... they opened up new doors.
My children's generation, as a whole, has few common heroes. Sports stars are typically "bad boy" types who are paid too much and act too immature. Ditto for rock stars. Our war heroes are few and far between and receive far too little press. We have also grown a generation of political skeptics who register as unaffiliated voters, rather than choosing a party, because they don't want to actively participate and don't care to understand.
Our children have also had their imagination dampened by instant communication, video games and music videos. When you heard a song prior to music videos, it took you to a memory...which was exclusively yours. Now everyone thinks the same thought after watching, hundreds of times, the same video as everyone else – sharing the same clip of film and thought. There is little exclusive or random inspiration.
Our instantaneous communication has become a two-edge sword. It keeps us abreast with what is happening in the world as it happens. It is constantly available. It transfers information so fast that little is left to the imagination... fewer are asking what if? Instead they await the newest version of their favorite device, asking when it will be updated.
Nostalgia aside... we need more heroes; we need more "national projects" which inspire thought. We need a global project which causes the next generation to imagine, explore and experiment. We need to continue to expand the minds of all of society, not just those in academia. We need to demand mind-stretching scientific excitement; it is how we have always grown and exceeded as a nation.
Tomorrow at the Kennedy Space Center seven more courageous souls will exit our atmosphere at over 6,000 miles per hour strapped to rockets which burn 1,000 pounds of fuel per second... wish I could be there to watch...and dream once again.