I’m going to throttle back my overbearing, know-it-all, in your face attitude just a bit this week, and ask Ralph to forgive me for horning in on one of his favorite categories to write about… Nostalgia.
Despite this post being due for publication on Monday, February 28, I sit here on the previous Thursday feeling the need to write Monday’s post now. I saw something happen today that got the muse going, and she will not be denied.
First, let’s back up a little bit. 50 years, to February 20, 1962 to be exact.
Just nine months after JFK had called for the United States to put a man on the Moon by 1970, a fellow no one outside of military flying had ever heard of, John Glenn, climbed into a Mercury capsule and into the role of American hero.
Two men, wearing that newfangled career moniker “astronaut” had preceded Glenn in our quest to conquer space, taking brief, sub-orbital flights.
This day, this flight, was to be dramatically different. John Glenn, riding in Friendship 7, was going to be the first American to orbit the earth, circling it three times in approximately 4 hours before splashing down. Not to minimize the United States earlier flights, but this was a major step forward for JFK’s vision of reaching the moon. Sub-orbital flight amazed, but actually orbiting the earth and returning safely was almost beyond belief.
America’s march to the moon progressed through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, and ended on December 19, 1972 when Apollo 17, our last manned flight beyond earth orbit, splashed down. Astronaut Gene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon. Little did we know it then that now, almost 40 years later, we would not yet have returned.
And now today, Thursday, February 24, 2011 we watched the sun setting on the United States manned space program. At 4:50 PM Eastern Standard Time space shuttle discovery, the first of the shuttle fleet, launched from Cape Canaveral for the last time.
Sure, there will be a couple more shuttle launches, but this, the final launch of the workhorse of the shuttle fleet, brings into stark relief the fact that the United States days of commanding the heavens are over, at least for the foreseeable future. After this and a couple more launches, culminating with a June 28 launch of space shuttle Atlantis, the United States will once again be earthbound for the first time since Alan Sheppard was launched in Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961 in a suborbital flight that lasted just 15 minutes.
When Atlantis lands at the end of its final flight, the United States will be hitchhikers to the international space station, a space station mostly built, and paid for, by the United States. Regarding manned space travel we will once again be at the mercy of the Russians.
When was the last time we were in that position? Before launch time on February 20, 1962. How’s that for progress?
Ralph got a bit agitated over the space program too.