As an 11-year old boy (and younger) I can vividly remember watching the dark skies scanning the vista of stars every night, anxiously awaiting NASA's next mission. As I watched satellites traversing the darkness at night, sometimes I dreamt I was up there too.
Unlike some of my childhood peers who were angered every time NASA pre-empted regularly scheduled TV programming for a space launch, I was glued to the television set with either a book in hand, or a notebook to draw sketches of the launch, which would in turn end up taped to my bedroom wall.
Today when a space shuttle goes up or a new probe is launched for the outer planets, America yawns... and I wonder where our sense of adventure and curiosity has gone.
I turned 12 three weeks after Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin travelled to, descended upon and returned home from the moon. Like another of my heroes, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, I was excited beyond words when the Apollo 11 mission touched down at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969.
Ask my mother, and she will tell you countless stories of my model spaceships, the old Mattell toy astronaut Major Matt Mason, the drawings I created, all the books I read and the imaginary games I played with my siblings or by myself that were firmly rooted in the imagination--travels to the moon, to the planets and beyond; and to other worlds orbiting faraway star systems and galaxies... present-day, I miss those immature but lofty dreams of us doing something bigger than ourselves.
Today, being the 40th anniversary of the historic occasion, I've often pondered over why the space race seems so distant and unimportant to so many people (or worse, those who believe it all was a cruel expensive hoax); and I am reminded of the dreams so many of us had back then and I would guess a lot of us today, feel are yet unfulfilled.
With NASA's current configuration, orbital science experiments being conducted and with the robot explorers on Mars I feel so much is still being done in the name of science, but feel so much more could be accomplished. Politically, I wonder if NASA will ever be up to the role it held in our imaginations during the 1960s.
I know there are countless arguments of why space exploration should be halted; I've heard and listened to them all: our tax monies could be better spent elsewhere; the dangers involved; that we need to take care of our problems here and now-- I can sympathize with, but cannot agree with the view that the space program is a waste of dollars and talent; there is just too much evidence to the contrary, in my opinion... and while sometimes, I cannot argue logically against those viewpoints, some things remain better felt with the heart than with the head.
BUT (and it is a big 'but') I believe man is meant to do things that are hard and sometimes impractical. Whimsy, curiosity, lofty, big things, challenging things, mind-expanding exploration, seeking answers are all part of our psyche. I worry if we become complacent and give up on the dreams of wonderment that we will become a stagnant and uninteresting people.
With NASA currently being tasked to return us to the moon (and Mars) sometime in the next 20 years, I hope that the excitement of going back to the moon can be re-captured, but somehow I fear that society just isn't interested. Movies, TV, video games, political discord and unrest, war and famine and the like, in my opinion, have all worked together to rob us of a great deal of what imagination used to offer us. Sadly, I do not think, in general, that we as a society dream like we once did in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
When I see photos of the wonders of the universe captured by our mighty Hubble Space Telescope, I marvel at the beauties of the creation that are far beyond our reach.
Just last week, I had mentioned to my son Wes that it saddens me that our space program has not yet achieved a manned space program equivalent to the one portrayed in the movie "2001 A Space Odyssey." To me, it is inexcusable that we have not taken full advantage of the successes of the Apollo space program or that the Space Shuttle program is being allowed to wither and die.
It is ironic that Walter Cronkite died this past week just as we are remembering the first manned trip to the moon 40 years ago today. Some of my heroes of the space program are still with us-- Armstrong, Glenn, Aldrin and the current explorers in the space shuttle program. To me, they embody the best of what makes humanity special.
Today, I celebrate the 40th anniversary of those historic footsteps on the moon. It was an incredibly exciting time for me as a youth and hope we can go forth and do so much more (yes! Mars!). I hope that we, as a people and society can recapture that optimism; that is when we are at our best. Sometimes I just think it unwise to place a dollar value on our dreams. It is, after all, our saving grace that...
We dream. We work to make those dreams become a reality. And then, we dream of something bigger and work some more.