In 1963, the astronaut atop the Mercury rocket “went higher, farther, and faster than any other American . . . Gordon Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.” So were the ending words of "The Right Stuff," an incredibly inspirational film which followed the brave exploits of America’s space pioneers.
Yeager, Shepard, Glenn, Armstrong, and all the other heroes volunteered to charge into the unknown, routinely working on projects more often resembling suicide missions than scientific research.
These men were driven by the opportunity to put America on top in the Space Race and become part of arguably the most exciting time in all of civilization. In exploring the final frontier, they taught the whole of humankind that no dreams were too big, and that people could aspire to do things greater than themselves. They made “the sky is the limit” spirit literally true.
But their road was paved by ridicule. Just years before achieving the impossible, their ambitions were considered folly. Putting a man into space? Pure science fiction. Landing on the moon? Unthinkable, unattainable, unwise. Reaching for the stars? Grow up.
Yet a mere 58 years after the Wright brothers’ flight, America put those cynics out to pasture as Shepard blasted into the record books, with Armstrong later taking the greatest “step” in human history.
In addition to exploring other worlds, the space race fostered a fierce nationalism that unleashed America’s competitive spirit. And for good reason. The reds beat us into orbit, hellbent on dominating outer space. From that point, it was “game on.” And we won.
Repeated trips to the moon, deep space probes, interplanetary missions, permanently manned space stations, and newly discovered technologies that benefitted all Americans.
That undisputed leadership was as bold as it was purpose driven, the result of generations inspired to study math and science like never before, all for the opportunity to do things no one else had ever done — to be on the cutting edge not just of technology, but of humanity.
The United States had its problems, of course, but there was never a doubt that it would continue to achieve unparalleled greatness.
From attaining civil rights for all its citizens to being the beacon of hope for oppressed peoples the world over, and yes, to push the envelope in space, America embodied the spirit that it would always be on an upward trajectory.
Mediocrity, timidness, and fear were not part of the American vocabulary, and dreams were simply visions soon to be realized.
But somewhere, we lost that spirit. And how things have changed.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of a great decline, slogging through a tragedy which only seems to be accelerating.
We haven’t been back to the moon to unlock its vast secrets in nearly four decades. We have abandoned a manned mission to Mars. And most telling, we no longer possess any means of transporting Americans into space, instead relying on the Russians to get us to the (misnamed) International Space Station — the one America engineered, constructed, financed, and put into orbit.
Yes, the same one the Ruskies said they will abandon, allowing it to fall back to Earth as a crumbling fireball, a once-proud testament to American ingenuity vaporizing right before our eyes. The symbolism is sickening.
And now a new adversary, challenging America at every turn. In addition to owning much of our debt, China possesses the fastest trains, biggest dams, most dynamic growth, and touts an aggressive space program. That’s not an endorsement, but an angry lament that they have taken a page out of America’s playbook, and worse, that this nation is paralyzed to counter it.
Instead of rising to the occasion, as we always did, the United States seems impotent, content to just watch the events unfold without so much as a last gasp.
The best example? Mitt Romney, campaigning for the most important job in the world — leader of the free world and sentry to American dreams — lambasting Newt Gingrich’s plans to erect a permanent moon base and incentivize the private sector to reinvigorate America’s space program. Romney said he would “fire” anyone who dared propose something so bold.
Is that the kind of leadership America needs? Think big, and you’re out the door?
But it wasn’t just Romney who attempted to kill Newt’s admirable vision. John McCain also skewered Newt, saying “we ought to send Gingrich to the moon.”
How pathetic America’s “leaders” have become when they can’t separate partisan politics to agree on a no-brainer: A rejuvenated space program is so eminently important that it should be a centerpiece of any administration.
The cost factor arises, as it should. But that’s an issue for budgetary debates. Instead of thinking big, the Romneys and McCains openly delight in mocking the dreams that still inspire so many Americans, all for miniscule partisan advantage. Shame on them.
How can we afford to fund such a grand endeavor? The bigger question is, “How can we afford NOT to?” But it is a legitimate concern, so here’s the answer:
- Use the bully pulpit to tell the American people how their money, their dreams, have been wasted on projects of absolutely no value. It is necessary to identify mistakes so that they aren’t repeated.
- Save money. End the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan, freeing up huge amounts of capital. Reorganize the military so that it isn’t guarding Europe from a Soviet land attack, since that threat evaporated 21 years ago. And implement common-sense entitlement reform, producing trillions.
- Utilize our vast domestic energy resources. Cheap energy would resurrect American manufacturing and permanently jump-start the economy.
Bold space exploration could then be taken for granted. And the indomitable American spirit would once again nurture the dreams of young children who fall asleep while looking out their bedroom windows, gazing upon the moon and stars with but one thought:
“Someday I’ll be up there.”
An accredited member of the media, Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, Friendly Fire Zone.
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