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April 20, 2012

Softly America’s Space Age Exited

Roy Meachum

We didn’t start the Space Age. The Soviet Union threw Sputnik beyond the earth’s gravitational field and competition began.


The race ended this week with what one witness described as a barely audible “whoosh,” according to The Washington Post. In other words, it should be pointed out the Tuesday aerial tour of the U.S. space shuttle Discovery terminated World War II’s residues, at least in the National Capitol. New York’s turn came next.


In 1957, Dwight Eisenhower occupied the Oval Office eight years after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, resulting the following year in the Korean War. Stalin’s 1953 death had not mitigated the deadly struggle between East and West, which began in earnest with the 1948 Berlin Airlift; the Army transferred me to the German capitol.


When I was in high school, the “love feast” (agape) between Washington and Moscow was in full dither. Before the Airlift, there were Stars and Stripes stories on how displaced Russians were killing themselves and their babies when told they would be transported to the motherland. Sputnik gave the Cold War headlines. The first U.S. space shots Americans celebrated with parties, which paused when astronauts died. Women and men lost their lives.


The 1968 “birth control” encyclical brought me to Rome in time for the launch of Apollo 7. The Vatican Synod of Bishops meetings on Humanae Vitae did not gather on the weekends. One October Saturday the three biggest Italian unions congregated at the Piazza of the Twelve Apostles before the march to the city university; speakers preached to the crowd, mainly composed of students and young people. When the demonstration set out, under the watchful eyes of the colorful Carabinieri, the older men and women retired to their home television sets to watch the moon shot that stayed in orbit for 11 days.


Returning from thrilling New Yorkers, space shuttle Discovery comes on display Friday at the Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian facility near Dulles Airport. There will be no more space shots from U.S. soil. Some 9,000 National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees will be laid off, from scientists to manual workers. Florida’s Kennedy Space Center is already shut down.


Of course, exploration of the universe continues, as attested by many Hollywood productions, going back coincidentally to 1968, the year when I witnessed Apollo 7, in Rome’s foreign press club (Stampa Estera).(I didn’t see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey until I returned to Washington.)


The national romance with astronauts has been already dead for a number of years. But the love of space travel burns brightly. Some people are paying private contractors big dollars where the women and men with funny-looking suits and facemasks explored.


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