One small step

By Jay Jamison

Estella Cherry Kyle was born in 1883. She met Dalton Galloway at Monmouth College and they married. She was my maternal grandmother. Queen Victoria was on the British throne when Estella was a young girl. Henry Ford had yet to perfect the assembly line with his Model T. In the back of her Monmouth College yearbook of 1909, ads for livery stables, ice houses, and blacksmith shops were common. Her lifetime included the day when the Wright brothers demonstrated that powered flight was possible in 1903, and she also lived to see men land on the moon. During her life, powered flight became a reality. During most of her life, a moon landing remained an unobtainable fantasy. 

I was born late in the year 1955. My youth was a time of expanding horizons; anything was possible. The sound barrier had been broken by test pilot Chuck Yeager in 1947. Nuclear-powered submarines could travel under the Arctic ice to the north pole. The TV shows I faithfully watched were “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Star Trek.”  In spite of the enormous risks, President Kennedy had made the policy clear, explaining to the nation that, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” This was a clear challenge to the Soviet Union; we intended to beat them to the moon.  In 1968, I was spellbound by the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I’m grateful that succeeding administrations didn’t abandon Kennedy’s challenge. Fifty years ago, this week, the Apollo 11 mission blasted off from the space center named after Kennedy. Destination: the moon. 

After America won the race to the moon, things changed. Today, it seems NASA is a risk-averse bureaucracy, lacking the purpose and drive of those days a half-century ago. Our space agency doesn’t even have the equipment to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. Instead, we rely on Russian launch vehicles, the designs of which harken back to the space race of 50 years ago. After Apollo, the Russians gave up trying to land a man on the moon. 

Something’s been lost in the last 50 years. In my grandmother’s early years, the race was to see who could conquer powered flight; in my youth, it was the race to the moon. In space, we’ve lost the drive we had when we faced down the Soviets. Fortunately, unexpected competitors have emerged to challenge NASA’s sluggish bureaucratic caution, and they aren’t agencies of a foreign government. Tesla SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, among others, are new and nimble space enterprises, arising from the private sector, not on orders from some government bureaucracy. These companies are bringing back the excitement of space travel, partly challenging and partly cooperating with NASA. Instead of missions to the moon that were seen as impossible in my grandmother’s time, these companies are not only talking about a return to the moon, they are actually laying the plans for manned missions to Mars. My grandmother lived to see powered flight and a moon landing. In my youth, I saw moon landings. I hope I live long enough to witness the next adventure.

Mars awaits!

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