Why was nearly 1-year-old me photographed by a blank TV screen? I’d seen the pictures in browsing family photo albums, but it wasn’t until I was perhaps in high school or college that I thought to ask my parents just what was the deal?
Well, blown out by the camera flash on that day, July 20, 1969, was the black and white image of Neil Armstrong setting the first footprint on the surface of the moon. An attempt to mark that moment in time, for both national and family history, was thwarted…by a flash bulb.
It’s a different kind of space exploration excitement for today’s generation as we watch rovers with high-resolution imagery showcase the desolate surface of Mars. Private enterprise moves more into the forefront with innovations in rocketry. And NASA continues its development toward the next moon mission, the stepping stone to a manned Mars landing.
Though, for the older folks out there, those early days of the space race were the start of something we all sensed was grandly epic, involving new technologies with many still undetermined risks, and the stake was nothing less than national pride.
Growing up, my parents and grandparents told me of those days when the United States was working up its space program, and watching the progress – and failures – in full black and white. We were in competition, catching up to the Soviet Union who had already many space firsts – first satellite, first man in orbit – while we were just trying to get a rocket to get beyond blowing up on the launching pad. But we did. And what followed lessons learned in the Mercury and Gemini projects was the Apollo program that – beyond its tragic start with three astronauts lost in Apollo 1 – got us to the moon, not once but six times.
I heard the stories: waiting around the TV as the countdown ticked away, it stops for some problem and starts again, until finally those Saturn 5 rockets burst forth with fire, smoke and steam, and that pencil-shaped projectile curved into the sky.
For my generation, we came of age just past the glory that was the Apollo program. My early space program memories were of following the Viking program that put two landers on Mars. Tracking their progress in school, we saw those early stark photos of cracked rock across a desolate landscape.
My era was the Space Shuttle program, heralded by the 1977 rollout of the first vehicle, Enterprise, followed by the first launch and flight of Columbia in 1981. In subsequent years, we watched each launch and landing, excited with the drama of each, and the new achievements along the way – satellite deployments and space walks – and devastated with the tragic destructions of shuttles Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003, respectively, with the loss of 14 astronauts.
With 50 years since that first historic moon landing, this anniversary directs the conversation to the future of the space program. In many ways it is more exciting and dynamic now than in the first few decades of its start. It also has a feeling of being background noise; its chaste reality of long-term goals shouted down by the sexy fantasy of present-day distractions and entertainment.
I, for one, look forward to continued space exploration efforts, envious at what my children will see develop just in their lifetimes. As their great-grandparents were witness to Lindberg’s first flight across the Atlantic, to transcontinental passenger flights, the jet age and then the space age – all within less than four decades – what will the coming years bring for them?
Fifty years ago, we achieved great things, sending men on a distant space journey, calculated and crafted on slide rules, and completed in spacecraft controlled with less computing power than a common pocket calculator. For the nearly one-year-old children of today, my hope is 50 years from now they can reflect upon their own memories of the space program’s progress, celebrate their generations’ achievements in technological breakthroughs and exploration, and look with optimism toward a future they will not see themselves.