It was hard to grow up in the 1960s, as I did, and not imagine yourself as an astronaut.
Maybe that was true only for male children until Sally Ride broke that barrier with her shuttle flight in 1983, but the race to the moon in the ’60s was more than just a magnificent realization of a Jules Verne fantasy and a crowning exclamation point on the idea that humans could achieve whatever they put their collective minds to. It was a counterpoint to much of what plagued that decade, from racial tensions to the war in Vietnam.
If we could solve the problem of going to the moon, we might be able to solve those problems, too. At least that was the unspoken message that ignited imaginations.
That’s a lot for SpaceX to live up to. But then, we could do worse than root for a space launch during a pandemic.
As I write this, the launch date has just been moved from Wednesday, my deadline, to Saturday, so I don’t know how things will go. I do know the odds — NASA says there is a 1 in 276 chance things will go horribly wrong. The astronauts said they are fine with that. I don’t remember any odds placed ahead of time on those earlier launches of my youth, but I can’t imagine it would have mattered. Astronauts know this isn’t a trip to the grocery store. That’s part of the allure.
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the astronauts, will never be household names like Alan Shepard, John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. But they should be, not because they went into space, but because their flight was the start of a public-private partnership that promises to lead to greater innovation and more exciting possibilities than the government ever could conjure on its own. It also was the first U.S. launch of its own astronauts in nine years.
Elon Musk, flamboyant and controversial, is the focus of this flight because he owns SpaceX, but there are several other private spacecraft companies that will continue to compete in this new world.
That competition may not capture the imagination like the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union back in the day. Saturday’s scheduled launch will attempt to replicate something that has been done many times before in other vehicles.
But over the long haul it will cost you a lot less, even if it isn’t a competition for bragging rights between capitalism and communism, at least not directly.
Actually, that aspect was always overhyped. Back in the day, the U.S. space program was just as dependent on the public treasury as was the Soviet program.
As Barry Schwartz of The New York Times wrote in 1969, “The three Apollo astronauts are all government employees, and Neil Armstrong — the first man ever to walk on the moon — belongs to the civil service.” NASA’s leaders, he said, “are successful bureaucrats, not entrepreneurs in the grand Ford-Rockefeller tradition.”
They sure made for good heroes, though.
As a grade school student in Phoenix during the ’60s, I remember how our teacher would wheel a large black-and-white television set into the room and let us watch the coverage. Whenever the astronauts would pan their camera back toward earth, which bobbed like a ball on a dark carpet, someone would inevitably yell, “Look! I see myself!”
This launch is more of a statement about capitalism than those were, which means, in a way, we really will see ourselves, or at least a piece of our American tradition of entrepreneurship. If all goes well, it could make COVID-19 fall out of view, just for a little while.
I recently found a book I used to leaf through when I was 10, titled simply, “Frontiers of Space.” I remember looking at the colorful photos of the earth from space, then flipping to a section on the future.
“The fruits of orbital research should begin to point towards important commercial dividends by 1980,” it says. The photos showed a vehicle launching from the United States, loaded with passengers, and arriving in Singapore 39 minutes later.
I’m still waiting for that flight.
As I watched the launch get scrubbed Wednesday afternoon, I wondered whether this rocket could make children dream of space again.
The answer is, probably not now. But it may be our best hope that they will again some day.