NASA back to launching Americans

May 31, 2020


From the time of man’s beginning,

I’ve mystified his soul,

Providing him the challenge,

What secrets I behold.

In years, I am not measured,

I alone transcend all time.

From the ancients to the modern,

Man’s future, I define.

I’ve seen man’s greatest follies,

His triumphs…His defeats.

Saw the Wright’s at Kitty Hawk,

Felt Armstrong’s giant leap.

I am the heavens, the planets, the stars,

Man’s destiny, His fate.

Do not lose sight my challenge,

Your arrival, I await…..

I wrote those words years ago literally in the dead of night. Just hours before I had been blessed with the opportunity to meet astronaut Eugene Cernan. The man who was also literally the “last man on the moon”. The man who authored the book of the same title and who spoke the last human words heard from the surface “we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

That was December, 1972. It had been barely three years since America had landed the first men on the moon, and there we were ending it all before it ever really got started.

Cernan left NASA in 1976 but never lost his passion for space travel and the importance of it not just to this nation, but to humanity as a whole.

So passionate was he that when then President Obama began gutting manned spaceflight in 2010 Cernan joined fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and James Lovell in signing an open letter warning:

…For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature. While the President’s plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.

Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity……”

So yes, when the Falcon 9 countdown drew close this past Wednesday I was glued to my TV just as hopeful and eager as I did every Apollo launch those now so long ago decades past.

For the past nine years, the United States of America, the nation that saved the world from Nazi evil and led the way in technological innovation since had been relegated to having to pay Vladimir Putin for seats on the old Soviet Soyuz capsule to launch American astronauts into space. A permission slip that has a price tag of over 80 million dollars per seat, per launch.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine put it all into perspective Wednesday morning in a Fox and Friends interview:

We are launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles back in 2011. So we haven’t done this now in none years. And the historical significance, we’ve only had four times in American history where we’ve put American astronauts at the top of a new launch system: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the space shuttle program and now we’re going to do it for a commercial crew.”

I watched as shuttle veterans Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley rode to the launch pad 39A (the same pad that launched the Apollo missions) in Tesla electric cars. Their suits sleek and tech.

Quite a difference from the recreational vehicle transfer van and Michelin Man suits of the 1960’s.

Yet for all the technological advancements I was witnessing Wednesday I couldn’t help reminiscing of those first space pioneers. In a way the Falcon 9 is the next generation Mercury. A first step on a long journey. As great as the accomplishment is, it still is low Earth orbit. The moon is still without our presence and deep space is still unattainable.

Unfortunately I was unable to finish this column with a description of a perfect launch and America’s return to manned flight. As has often happened at Cape Canaveral over the years, Mother Nature stepped in with thunderstorms and at 4:18 pm ET, just sixteen minutes from lift off,the launch was scrubbed due to weather.

Hopefully as you’re reading this, weather will have cooperated with the secondary launch window scheduled for yesterday and America is once again using its own to launch its own.

The launch may have been delayed, but the dream will never end. God speed Falcon 9, God speed.

PUBLISHER NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the May 31, 2020 print edition of the Joplin Globe

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