By Brian M. Howle
Here we are on the cusp of yet another publishing deadline, working our collective little fingers to the proverbial bone. There is no rest, no mindless chatter, no time for those who only desire to waste our time. Faster, harder. Hustle, hustle, hustle …
And life goes on.
And then, right in the middle of total chaos, I glanced at the television through sleep-deprived eyes and saw that magnificent testimonial to the duality of man’s accomplishments, the space shuttle Discovery STS-114. Glistening in the morning sun on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, its hissing, venting gases and shrill warning horns penetrate the hot Florida trade winds as Americans prepare to once again return to space.
Sometimes visual or audio triggers send my mind through a virtual wormhole of time travel, much like the one experienced by Jodi Foster’s portrayal of “Dr. Alloway” in the movie, Contact.
And this was one of those times.
It was in the very late ‘50s or early ‘60s when my small, simple mind reached awareness of the marvelous wonders of space, with its incomprehensible infinity and lore of the beginning of time.
Growing up in Andrews, S.C., I hadn’t really nailed the whole thing down yet, as I was only 5 or 6 years old. The bi-monthly sojourn to my mom’s hometown of Branchville, S.C. – clear across the known universe as far as my concept of time was concerned – was the furthest distance I had traveled. And it was simply unbearable to endure, because it had that whole “black hole” vibe to it on both legs of the journey.
It took forever to get there, it took forever to leave there, and it took forever to get back home to Andrews.
Back in those care-free, safety-of-your-children-be-damned “Happy Days”, cars were cars – none of this nansy pansy seatbelt or child restraint seat nonsense. No touchy-feely airbags to cushion your leetle haid if mom had to slam on the brakes to avoid a butterfly; nope, just good ol’ American steel dashboards that made cleanin’ up those messy brains and innards a snap with just a common water hose.
So don’t judge my parents as negligent when I tell you that – to keep me quiet and out of their hair – they would allow me to stretch out my small frame in the confines of the rear window dashboard, between the top of the back seat and the rear window.
Lordy, back in those flag wavin’, glory days of American fuel inefficiency and headstrong national disregard for depleting natural resources, the living-room-on-wheels, bigass gas guzzlin’ Ford sedan that my dad bought had a rear dash nearly as wide as a single bed.
So there I was, all tucked up against the cool glass on one beautiful October night, happy as a two-tailed dog because we were on the return leg of our episodic travels to grandma’s house, soon to return to all the wondrous technology of Andrews. And life was good.
Just on the east side of Manning, S.C., dad pulled over to a small gas station on Hwy. 521, as he was fiddlin’ with the radio. I was scanning the grounds for a drink machine (I was a test-market baby for Dr. Pepper and while everyone else called it “spiced prune juice”, I was immediately a Pepper, too), but to no avail. The tiny, old-fashioned station had two lonely gravity-fed pumps, a single light pole, a water faucet, and one small bench that graced the front of the building.
Dad beckoned us outside the car, where we quietly sat on the little bench and arched our necks upward. It was October 4, 1957, and the Soviet Union had just successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a basketball, weighed only 183 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.
We sat there, looking like a pack of Pavlov’s dogs waiting for God to drop some celestial treat upon our easily-impressed little haids, and leave us smackin’ our lips in spiritual contentment.
Even in my short, young life, I had long known that dad was on the ball. But he really scored points with his youngest born on that night, as he located constellations and determined due West and East. He pulled a piece of newspaper from his shirt pocket, torn from the only thing Branchville had to offer that kept us in touch with the civilized world. Here I was, amazed that a daily newspaper could find its way to Branchville – and dad was plotting the course of man’s first satellite. Mother feigned interest, interrupting the clear, beautiful, silent blackness of the night sky, with its twinkling, glowing bed of starlight dancing across the heavens, with muffled little asthma-induced coughs that signaled a return to driving was imminent.
And then my dad was on equal footing with Galileo, DaVinci, Einstein and Oppenheimer, because sure enough – right where he had repeatedly pointed and told us where to watch – a small, brilliant and rapidly moving point of light traversed the darkness above our heads.
It lasted all of, maybe, two minutes. And though I somewhat understood what was going on, it was clear that my parents were completely blown away by the state of events.
However, the American public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S. Then the Soviets struck again; on November 3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including a dog named Laika.
On January 31, 1958, the tide changed, when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series of lightweight, scientifically useful spacecraft.
The Sputnik launch also led directly to the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In July 1958, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act (commonly called the “Space Act”), which created NASA as of October 1, 1958 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and other government agencies.
Within a few years of that momentous time, I became increasingly aware of the bizarre and scary world around me. A young U.S. president won a contentious election in the midst of rampant rumors of impending invasion by the Cubans and Russians, as daily Civil Defense sirens wailed as if sensing the apparent doom brought on by an apocalyptic, atomic Cold War.
Then the young president made a speech that set the bar for human achievement at an all-time high: That our nation’s space program would take a man to the surface of the Moon and safely back to earth before the end of the decade. Mom and dad literally gasped out loud.
Sadly, that young president didn’t live to see his great challenge met.
And life goes on.
In the summer of 1969, my mother was attending Western Carolina University’s graduate program to obtain her Master’s Degree, necessary for accreditation as a guidance counselor. Located in the corner of the state, near the tiny town of Sylva, N.C., WCU was mom’s home for three consecutive summers.
Meaning, of course, that during my Freshman, Sophomore and Junior years in high school, it was just my dad watching over me during summer break.
This was also the summer where I absolutely discovered that I believed in the existence of an omnipotent, caring and loving God.
And so, dad and I managed to get by during those heady days of summer, while mom languished in her academic pursuits.
Now, every few weeks or so, dad and I fired up the ol’ LTD and made tracks for Sylva, because my father simply could not be away from his bride for more than 14 days.
We drove up to see mom on July 18, and made a weekend of spending time with her. She booked a room at a little mom & pop motel in downtown Sylva, and everyone was brought up to speed on what the others had been up to.
When we left on Sunday afternoon, I noticed dad paying far too much attention to his wristwatch as we made our way towards Columbia. He even suggested that I ease on over the speed limit by a mph or two, something he rarely ever condoned.
As we entered Columbia, he instructed me to take an exit into West Columbia, to the Tremont motel. Mom and dad spent many a weekend at the Tremont while attending USC football games over a 40 year span, so he felt no compunction whatsoever to walk right in and ask the owner if we could watch the history-changing event about to unfold on their television set in the lobby.
All conversation ceased, and we – along with some two or so dozen others staying there – watched the black and white set with blood pressure-raising intensity, and on July 20, 1969, the human race accomplished its single greatest technological achievement of all time when Neil A. Armstrong first set foot on the Moon, 5 months and 11 days within the timetable established by the late President John F. Kennedy.
At 10:17 p.m. EDT, Armstrong took the “Small Step” into our greater future when he stepped off the Lunar Module, named Eagle, onto the surface of the Moon, from which he could look up and see Earth in the heavens as no one had done before him.
He was shortly joined by “Buzz” Aldrin, and the two astronauts spent 21 hours on the lunar surface and returned 46 pounds of lunar rocks. After their historic walks on the Moon, they successfully docked with the Command Module Columbia, in which Michael Collins was patiently orbiting the cold but no longer lifeless Moon.
More Apollo flights followed, but with the crisis of Apollo 13’s mission and a budget drained by the Vietnam War, the U.S. government backed off the massive funding, and man’s presence on other celestial bodies came to an end.
And life goes on.
The Space Shuttle program emerged a decade later with much fanfare and aplomb, and allowed crews of up to seven astronauts break the surly bonds of Earth.
Meanwhile, NASA and partners from Europe and elseswhere began The Hubble Telescope project – funded in the 1970s, proposed to launch in 1983 before budget, oversight and technical malfunctions delayed its deployment, Then, in 1986, the crew of Challenger was fated to touch the face of God during liftoff. The entire program was shelved for four years.
And life goes on.
When Discovery STS-31 finally launched with the Hubble onboard to be deployed in 1990, scientists soon found that the telescope’s capabilities were severly compromised because – surprise! – the main mirror had been ground incorrectly.
But our ability to repeatedly visit space continued – despite the tragedy and loss of life whose cost far outweighed the financial output – and the first of five missions to save Hubble launched in 1993. Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-61 arrived, where the telescope was restored to its original functionality. And then, we lost Columbia and her crew in the ill-fated 2003 descent from orbit – and the program suffered another three year delay.
And life goes on.
And this final servicing mission – Atlantis STS-125 – breathed extended life into Hubble with new batteries (the originals lived 13 years beyond expectancy), imaging devices and guidance refitting during a (yawn) record 5 extended, grueling 8-hour spacewalks. Do any of you remember how the world came to a halt when Ed White floated out of that capsule for the very first time, for all of 20 heart-stopping minutes?
The historic, record-shattering Hubble repair upgrade barely received more than glancing acknowledgment from the majority of Americans.
Hubble’s ability to take extremely sharp images with almost no background light is the result of its orbit. Hubble’s Ultra Deep Field image, for instance, is the most detailed visible-light image ever made of the universe’s most distant objects – made possible because its orbit put it outside the distorting properties of Earth’s atmosphere. Many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics, such as accurately determining the rate of expansion of the universe – and to look billions of years back in time to within 500,000 years of the origins of its beginning.
The improvements will allow Hubble to continue gathering exponentially important data until approximately 2014, and hopefully longer. There are no further plans to save it – nor are there any plans for continued manned flight beyond the Shuttle program, scheduled to end in 2010, due to lack of funding and budget cuts.
And life goes on.
But nothing will ever change if man does not continue to evolve, and space exploration should be on the leading edge of that mission. But this national and intellectual loss of interest stuns me beyond words.
Mom didn’t care much for pop music of my generation, so when she happened to hear Don McLean’s “American Pie” lyric – ‘So we were all here in just one place, A generation lost in space’ – she found it most amusing.
“Now, that’s a song about the truth!” she laughed.
I didn’t share her amusement, at the time, but that was normal for the day.
As time has passed, the meaning she found amusing in that lyric came to be more true than either of us could have imagined.
See, the next generation is the one lost in space.
2004 was a hard year for me. Dad passed away on August 3, and mom simply lost her will to live and joined him on December 14. They have crossed over into Carl Sagan’s “stuff that stars are made of.”
And I have never felt more lost – and yet knowing.
And life goes on.
The previous column was originally published July 28, 2005; abridged May 28, 2009.