© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2003
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik removed me, at least part of the way, from what passed for geekdom in those days.
The size of a basketball, and weighing only 183 pounds, Sputnik wasn't capable of doing much more than orbiting the earth every 98 minutes and making a beeping sound, but riding with it were the seeds of 45 years of progress that have given us everything from Teflon to satellite television to the kind of microelectronics that power pacemakers.
It also brought, in that post-McCarthy era, a renewed paranoia. For better or worse, we were still rooting out real and suspected communists in the movie industry and in our school systems, and some of us had grown up playing with aircraft spotter cards used to spot "enemy" aircraft if they dared breach our borders. Here, right above our heads was an enemy object -- nobody had publicly used the word spacecraft yet -- and there was nothing to be done about it.
NASA and the Mercury program were born practically on the spot. We rushed to get our own satellite, Explorer, into the sky and began the headlong plunge into the unknown that took a sad pause -- but did not end -- Saturday in the skies over Texas.
The space race was an exciting time for science fiction buffs like me who had been forced, for some time, to content themselves with slim offerings on library shelves. We had to be content with a couple of offerings from Heinlein or Asimov and -- because they never knew quite where to put him -- sometimes H.P. Lovecraft. But suddenly men riding rockets was the stuff of governmentspeak, and those of us who had mastered Newton's laws of motion and the relativistic differences in time passage on rapidly moving objects were suddenly in the know. My grandfather stopped asking me at least once a day, "Why do you read that crap?" and then told me that neither he nor I would ever live to see men walk on the moon. He was wrong on both counts.
When the first astronauts were named, I remember thinking that they were all pretty old (some of them were pushing 40) and was amused to learn there had been some thought given to using circus performers, race car drivers or stunt men. But President Eisenhower had decided they should be military pilots, and initially, there was more fighter-jock swagger than scientific chin-stroking among them.
When my uncle got a job as a NASA engineer, and I got to visit him at his Satellite Beach home, I was in awe that I was visiting a spaceport, meeting a rocket scientist and, later, listening to my cousins speak casually of summer jobs gluing tiles onto a shuttle under construction.
The day after my 18th birthday, when I went to enlist in the Marine Corps, I stopped in the television section of a downtown department store to watch coverage of Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn's historic flight as the first American in orbit.
I subsequently applied for pilot training in the Marine Corps -- and withdrew my application so I could get married -- but I don't think I ever planned to be an astronaut, even when the emphasis shifted from derring-do (we all thought) to brains.
But the danger was always there. We learned after the fact how close Glenn had come to being incinerated on his flight. We were reminded in 1967 when three astronauts died during training in an Apollo capsule on the launch pad and, as we did Saturday, we all saw, either live or on television, the risk, the danger and the courage in space flight written large against a clear sky.
An acquaintance of mine asked rhetorically Saturday (rhetorically because she knows I don't have all the answers) why we bothered going to space, whether what we gained from it was worth tragedies like the loss of seven lives aboard Columbia.
Setting aside cell phones, satellite television and space-age mattress fabrics, all I could say for sure is that we have what seems like an almost genetic need to test, to explore and to know, and that the only ones who could say for sure whether it was worth it were either beyond speech or were deciding, after pausing to catch a deep breath, to push on.
And they, apparently, have always thought it was.