Spacemen and Women Still Have the Right Stuff
by M.L. Faunce
When I went to work for NASA in 1962, the same year Houston Space Flight Center later named Johnson Space Center opened to train astronauts, the manned space program was in its infancy.
Only a year earlier, in May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.
Sputnik had been successfully launched into orbit by the Soviets some four years before, and Yuri Gagarin had beaten us with his historic orbital flight. But with Kennedys vision, our sights lifted to the moon, and the U.S.-Soviet space race was on. It was Buck Rogers times 10, and Americans were inspired and full of pride as we took up the challenge of outer space, not as sci-fi but as the voyage that would take us from earths frontier to the vast frontiers of space exploration.
If President Kennedy was our model, John Glenn became our favorite son, when he pushed us up a notch, becoming the first American to orbit earth. Our collective enthusiasm was fueled by six flights in the Mercury program, 10 Gemini flights and 11 Apollo flights, including six moon landings. Before the worlds eyes, the Eagle landed in 1969, and Neil Armstrong uttered his practiced words: One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Back then, Americans tuned in by the millions, and the world heralded our successes.
Precisely 30 years ago, Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moons Sea of Tranquility. Thats now almost ancient history to the generations who have followed. No human has since set foot on the lunar surface.
My own office at NASA, International Affairs, was involved with smaller fish: cooperative, multilateral efforts. We formulated agreements with countries spread around the globe, established a network of tracking stations and helped developing countries launch their own communications satellites. We set up a Paris office to work with the European space agencies, and that office became the launching pad for whirlwind, worldwide astronaut tours named for a concept hard to find these days: Goodwill.
Back then, everybody wanted a closeup look at a member of this exclusive fraternity of scientists and engineers, doctors, test pilots and even teachers who became astronauts. Their work was so risky they couldnt get life insurance. Thats a measurement earth-bound mortals can use to define the life work astronauts have chosen.
By the 113th space shuttle return to earth on February 1, Columbias seven astronauts were doing work that has become routine for our country, but not for the voyagers. These seven souls had looked at earth from a great distance; like the song says, the world looked like their friend.
Seven extraordinary lives were lost last Saturday. Now that they are gone, we are looking at them. We learn how they marveled at the sheer immensity of space, and how they believed in the value of their task. We find their enthusiasm contagious, and we are in awe of their talents. We understand through them how fragile is our planet, how precious life.
The space shuttle Columbias seven, diverse astronauts held their focus. Now they hold ours.