Last week, my father emailed me the obituary of Scott Carpenter, who died Oct. 10 at the age of 88. Carpenter was among the seven astronauts chosen to participate in Project Mercury, NASA’s first human spaceflight program. In 1962, when Carpenter became the second man to orbit Earth, Dad was an infant. But seven years later, when Neil Armstrong took that leap, my father sat transfixed before the television, developing an enthusiasm for spaceflight he would pass to me. Childhood movie nights meant “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” or episodes of “American Experience” and “From the Earth to the Moon.”
This enthusiasm for the space program has become increasingly anachronistic. Today’s space program elicits widespread disinterest, and most members of NASA’s devoted, if trim, fan base hide in the shadows until disaster strikes. This past month, duty called when the government shutdown gutted the agency’s operating budget, almost entirely halting scientific research and educational outreach. In September, before the crisis, President Obama assured the nation that the two American astronauts aboard the International Space Station would still receive government services. But how many Americans even knew, or cared, that they were there?
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered an impassioned speech at Rice University. The man from Boston on a stage in Houston said those Florida rockets were a national project — a grand endeavor would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Spaceflight, he suggested, would make us great. “We choose to go to the moon,” he told the crowd, his voice forceful and firm. “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.”
He was right; sending men to the moon proved no easy task. In 1967, early tragedy marred the Apollo program when, during an otherwise routine test, an unforgiving fire killed its first mission’s three-person crew. Apollo 13 had its problems, and even Scott Carpenter’s voyage faced technical malfunctions. Yet these challenges inspired the moments of ingenuity Kennedy predicted, and came to characterize the project’s hopeful spirit. In a 1968 telecast, the astronauts of Apollo 8 read the opening lines of Genesis in lunar orbit. Commander Frank Borman ended the Dec. 24 broadcast with a Christmas message from the crew — “God bless all of you, on the good Earth” — that Walter Cronkite later told PBS brought tears to his eyes. When Borman returned home to Earth, he received a telegram from a stranger. It read simply: “You saved 1968.”
In an age of revolutions, spaceflight was a salve. And what historical event is more worthy of mythology than two men — dots against the vastness of space — playing golf on the moon? Images of space walks and lunar landings were the impossible made real.
Today, few politicians speak of space exploration with the sense of possibility and progress Kennedy evoked. Some point to the specter of the space shuttle explosions — the second, in 2003, still in recent memory. Others dismiss spaceflight as fanciful. During the last presidential election, when Newt Gingrich spoke of a “moon base” and missions to Mars, Jon Stewart gave his plan the “Daily Show” skewer, suggesting the former Speaker should tap Ron Paul as “first ambassador to Moonlandia.” On either side of the aisle, some Republicans lawmakers cite NASA as proof of a bloated federal budget.
It strikes me as somewhat ironic that NASA, once a testament to sustained national cooperation, has come to symbolize the gridlock of government shutdown. Today’s entrenched partisanship has shattered the visionary spirit that once galvanized the national consciousness. The space program gave the nation a common goal so large that it demanded visionary and thoughtful leadership. The Apollo 8 astronauts — cognizant of the trust the nation had placed in them — fretted for hours before broadcasting their message from space. Now, our leaders add noise, not clarity to public discourse — perhaps best exemplified by a recent rendition of “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Back in Houston, Kennedy told the nation that the path to space would not be easy. Now partisan politics has all but closed that road. Still, the power of visionary dreams is real — and the next moon is waiting to be found.
Marissa Medansky is a junior in Morse College and a former opinion editor of the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.