Friday, May 6, 2011

Another Anniversary Poses the Question: Man, Am I Old or What?

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the first American in Space. Back on May 5th, 1961 Astronaut Alan Shepard rode atop a Redstone 3 rocket in the Mercury Capsule "Freedom 7" into sub-orbital space. Fifteen minutes later, Freedom 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean roughly 75 miles ENE of Grand Bahama Island. I was two weeks from turning nine years old. I watched the countdown, liftoff, and Shepard's return to the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain LIVE on Black & White TV.

Alan Shepard strapping on Freedom 7 before launch.
The seven astronauts, known as the "Mercury Seven" already had what we now call "Rock Star Status", living heroes who were on TV seemingly nightly as the United States played catch-up in the Space Race with the Soviet Union. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to orbit the Earth just three weeks before Shepard's flight. I was a total fanboy...hooked for life.

Back then as a wide-eyed kid I expected to follow the exploits of NASA and the Astronauts as they first conquered Earth Orbit, went to the Moon, and on to Mars. TV was loaded with programs glorifying the Space Program, Walt Disney built exhibits at Disneyland about the Space Program and his signature Sunday Night TV Show was littered with NASA Hype. Like I said, I ate it up along with millions of my fellow Baby Boomers.

Those were heady days. I listened to John Glenn make America's first manned orbital flight on my first transistor radio, I watched every manned launch of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Programs. I was 17 years old when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon with Walter Cronkite droning over every step down the ladder. My Dad and I went outside and looked up at the Full Moon. Wow, wow, wow! A few missions later NASA sent a car to the Moon! How totally American! On America's highways, Muscle Cars ruled the roost.

For the most part I still ate it up, but I was starting to get a little jaded, teen-aged angst style. There was a long pause between the last Moon Landing and the beginning of the Space Shuttle Program. We'd put a Man on the Moon and won the Space Race...we'd climbed the highest mountain for the foreseeable future, Mars was a couple of decades away. The Vietnam War was dominating the Evening News then, drugs and protests were dulling the hearts and minds of My Generation, and NASA and our space aspirations faded into the background noise. Most of the 70's were best endured...not as explosive as the 60's thankfully, the Disco Decade...really? Something less than faint praise is due I'd say...

I started working nights in 1981, and soon started paying attention to the night sky and the Space Shuttle Program. The Challenger Disaster got my attention in 1986, and I was fully reinvested in Spaceflight when I lead my pack of groomers to the top of my mountain to watch Columbia reenter in 2003. Columbia, you'll remember broke up over Texas after a foam strike on liftoff breached it's carbon/carbon wing leading edge, causing superheated gasses to enter the wing and cause total failure.

There have been 133 Shuttle Missions to date. The three remaining shuttles are good for another 25 or so missions each. However, the Obama Administration has ordered the end of the program, and two missions remain. Orion, the new and improved shuttle vehicle has been put on the back burner too..I'd better live to 100 if I'm gonna see Americans walk on Mars!

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