At 11:58 PM on Saturday night October 29, 2016, something happened that almost no one noticed. Three people returned to earth after 115 days on the International Space Station. These brave astronauts hail from the United States (Kate Rubins), Russia (Anatoly Ivenishin), and Japan (Takuya Onishi). Taking their place on the ISS are three more pioneers, one American and two Russians. I follow the missions to the station regularly. I have had the NASA app on my phone for years and I love reading my Twitter feed and seeing the updates from the individuals on board. But I realize I am in a small minority these days and I can’t understand why.
For me, the fascination with space began at a very early age. I am not old enough to remember the first moon landing since I was just over a year old. I do distinctly remember at the age of four when my father took me out into the back yard late one evening and pointed up to the moon and told me that men were walking around up there. Even at four I had all sorts of questions. How did they get there? Why were they there? How would they get home? We sat and watched the grainy footage of the lift off of the lunar module. My father told me he was not sure we would go back any time soon. We both hoped that was not true. But this four-year-old was firmly convinced that he was going to be the one to go back.
Through the seventies, I latched onto any news I could find. I was mesmerized a few years later watching what coverage there was of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Not only were we still in space but we were doing it with what I was told was the enemy. At the time, I had little idea the depth of what that meant. I was just excited that we were still flying. I tried to follow Skylab until it met its untimely end. But, it seemed like the news from NASA went silent for a few years. Maybe the whole world just lost interest?
By this time, I was in my early teens. Much of the current news about space involved unmanned probes to other planets and it was not holding the attention of the general public. We had a tease in 1977 when the Enterprise made its flights, but these were all within the atmosphere. So, I began to look back. I had not yet learned how we had gotten to this point. I started with Sputnik. Everyone knows about Sputnik but few know more than it was the first object launched into space. The original satellite was intended to function for just a little under two hours. It actually stayed operational for 1440 orbits of earth. I think it was an unqualified success. Incidentally, the stage of the rocket that deployed the satellite remained in orbit for two months.
After Sputnik, the information that can be found on what would come to be known as the space race is copious. I read everything I could get my hands on and watched every program I could find related to space. Yuri Gagarin became every bit the hero to me as any of the Mercury Seven. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly almost twenty years to the day before Sally Ride. (What took us so long?) Canada became the third nation in space in 1962 deploying a satellite from an American rocket. Alexi Leonov and Ed White would each make historic EVAs or space walks only months apart. Then there was the tragedy of Gus Grissom and his crew on Apollo 1. Grissom who was to be the first to fly in all three phases of the space program, the afore mentioned White and Roger Chaffee are heroes of mine to this day. The Soviets lost Vladimir Komarov a few months later in equally tragic circumstances. Yet they still pressed on to very lofty goals.
Then came April 12th, 1981. The Space Shuttle program would launch with Columbia. The world was paying attention again. John Young and Robert Crippen were the first of the new generation of space flight astronauts. Now I was certain I wanted to join them. I tried my best to convince my parents I needed to go to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I sent for all of the material. I knew exactly what was required to attend. I was ready. I wanted to use this to propel me into the space program. I even entered the contest to name the orbiter that would become Endeavour. I did not win, although I still think Horizon would be a great name for a new vehicle. Neither the trip to camp nor the career in the space program were in my future but I was not about to drop my interest in all things space. Even the horrible day in 1986 when we lost the Challenger could not deter me. Quite the contrary. By this time, I was completing high school and preparing for college. I was now well aware of the human side of the program. Dick Scobee and his crew died as I watched them ascend. I was home that day; school was cancelled due to snow. I was excited that I would get the chance to watch the launch. Then at almost the two-minute mark, it happened. That is still one of those rare days that I will always remember every detail. I sat there the entire day and listened to the analysis and thought to myself, please don’t let this end the program. Thankfully, it did not.
It took more than two and a half years, but the shuttles were flying again. We had learned from the tragedy and adapted the information to future launches. We became very good. So
good, that no one noticed any longer. Launches were not covered. Details from missions were buried deep into newscasts. All of a sudden I had to work to find information again. Even the news in 1998 that the first section of what is now the International Space Station was put into orbit was almost an afterthought. The cold war is over; the space station is an effort among several nations. This is a wondrous, unifying accomplishment and almost no one is paying attention.
The world briefly came back to watch with the loss of Rick Husband and his crew when the Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. We now had 24-hour news channels and the internet, so news was not hard to find. It just faded from public view as the next big story pushed it out of the way. The program kept going though. Again, we learned from the data and improved our equipment. More missions would be launched. We would get better yet.
The shuttle program ended with the retirement of the Atlantis but we are far from done. Cape Canaveral and Baikonur Cosmodrome still send a constant stream of vehicles up to the ISS and many other locations. We have active probes that study everything from our sun to the moons around Jupiter and Saturn. We have rovers sending back endless information from Mars. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to send us amazing pictures into the universe even as we prepare to launch its replacement, The James Webb Space Telescope. This is a great time to pay attention.
So here we are in 2016. Seventy countries have space agencies including the cooperative European Space Agency. Nine countries have successfully launched vehicles into space. Forty nations have sent people into space. Even the United Nations has gotten involved in planning a space flight. We are contemplating missions back to the Moon and Mars. We are searching for inhabitable moons around other planets. The ISS continues to add modules and perform meaningful experiments. Why are more people not looking up? I have no idea but I invite you to join me in following space exploration and becoming excited about the possibilities again.
As for me, no, I never made it into space. Would I like to go, absolutely? Do I bring a unique talent to NASA? No. Do I ever see it happening? Of course, not. I will have to include Gene Kranz as another hero since he was an integral part of the program without ever flying himself. I have followed the global space program for years and have no plans to stop. For now, I will continue to track the ISS and occasionally, when the orbit and cloud cover cooperate, go outside to watch it pass overhead. I am thankful that another team of astronauts has safely returned. I also am thankful that there is a new team working up above. Best of luck and enjoy the next few months Shane Kimbrough, Andrei Borisenko, and Sergey Ryzhikov. I look forward to seeing you on my NASA app and my Twitter feed. I may never fly myself, but that will not stop me from doing it vicariously through you and your successors.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air… .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee, Jr
Have you been inspired by anyone in the Space Program? Please leave me a comment and tell me who it was that had an impact on your life.