Heroic Astronauts, Forgotten Americans

Throughout the afternoon of Feb. 1, as the cable and broadcast networks showed that terrible loop of Columbia ‘s destruction, somber anchors reminded us that we too often take space travel for granted. True enough. Were it not for the disaster, the networks themselves would have been otherwise occupied with their usual Saturday-morning offerings of celebrity news, health tips and get-rich-quick infomercials. And how many of us even knew the shuttle was due to land that morning?

News conferences with middle-aged NASA administrators and network interviews with retired astronauts brought back memories of a time when space travel was new, exciting and newsworthy, and those who ran the programs and did the flying were the heroic pioneers of a new frontier. A street not far from my home bears the name of Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, and commemorates his journey aboard Mercury 6 in 1962.

NASA represented that American spirit of optimism and adventure which dour continentals invariably found amusing at best, simplistic and naïve at worst. The astronauts were celebrated for their conspicuous courage, but even those men (and the occasional woman) seated in long rows at mission control, staring through thick, black-rimmed glasses, won our admiration for their incredible competence and vast knowledge of what was unknowable to the rest of us. They spoke in jargon, they dressed in skinny ties and short sleeves, and their hair never brushed the back of their collars. At a time when so much else seemed to be falling apart or changing forever, they offered the solace of pure expertise and the possibility of progress through science, which knew neither ideology nor party affiliation. The ideals they upheld transcended even the bitter rivalry of the Cold War; in 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz test project brought American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts together in space, while American and Soviet soldiers watched each other on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall.

Then, somewhere and somehow, we lost our fascination with space and our interest in those whose work is destined to be remembered in the next millennium. Instead, as unserious people and people afraid of being considered serious gained influence in the culture, achievement became less important than fame, glamour, wealth and, of course, attitude. The prototypical desk jockey at mission control was transformed from a symbol of American know-how and education into something of a nerdy geek with a slide rule and a pocket-protector. Boy, imagine running into somebody like that at your next cocktail party! Like, what would you, like, talk about? Space? Whatever!

The Columbia tragedy not only reminds us of the dangers of space travel, but that there still are people-men and women, Americans, immigrants and citizens of other lands-who pursue knowledge not for the sake of fame or wealth, but for the sake of knowledge itself. They are countercultural in the extreme, for they are destined to achieve none of the dreams of 21st-century America: They will appear on no magazine covers; their personal lives will not find their way to the gossip pages “everyone” reads; they will never visit the green rooms of the late-night celebrity vehicles once known as talk shows.

No wonder so many of us pay them little heed.

Luckily-for us and for them-there still is a group of Americans that remains entranced by the possibilities of space travel, and by the men and women who brave the dangers to advance nothing more than human knowledge. That cohort would be America’s schoolchildren-or at least the portion of them whose souls remain untainted by the cynicism and superficiality of boomer-run culture.

Nearly every school I’ve visited in recent years has a model of the space shuttle in some prominent place, a sign that teachers are not among those jaded and bored by space travel. The Columbia ‘s commander, Rick Husband, visited schools and youth groups in New Jersey three years ago and made such an impression that a tavern owner put a framed picture of the astronaut on a wall. The Star Ledger reported that it was hanging there on Feb. 1, the day Rick Husband died. Among the on-board experiments lost when Columbia disintegrated was a collection of rocks from western New Jersey. They were gathered by students at the Ogdensburg Elementary School, who were trying to measure the effects of ultraviolet radiation in space.

Nobody needs to tell America’s children, or their teachers, of the importance of space travel. Nobody needs to rouse them from their world-weary sophistication or their ironic detachment. They understand that space travel is, or ought to be, awe-inspiring, and that those who travel in space are as courageous, in their own way, as the men and women who risked and lost their lives on Sept. 11.

Our children know this. As for the rest of us, well, we’ll return our attention to what’s really important-winning fame and fortune on reality television. Heroic Astronauts, Forgotten Americans