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Shuttle Disaster

Space travel keeps American dreams alive

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003


As a native Floridian who came of age during the early 1960s, I always have been fascinated by space flight, and I always have appreciated its value to our nation and the rest of the world.

During the early hours of Feb. 20, 1962, my 11th-grade classmates and I traveled by bus from Crescent City to Cape Canaveral. John Glenn had been strapped inside a Mercury capsule when we arrived. Thousands of other schoolchildren and their chaperones from around the state were there, too.

About two hours later, after a few delays, Friendship 7's engines ignited and the craft lifted off, taking Glenn into space for the first time. I was at the Cape 36 years later, on Nov. 1, 1998, when Glenn, then an Ohio senator, flew into space for the second time, this time aboard the shuttle Discovery, NASA's 95th shuttle mission.

Cynics complained that the Glenn mission had no real scientific value, that it was symbolic, nothing more than a walk down memory lane for an old astronaut who would never fly into space again.

Make no mistake. The space cynics are right about one thing: Manned space flight is symbolic, and no voyage was more symbolic than Glenn's Discovery flight. But the space program, manned and unmanned, has inherent value despite what nondreamers say.

The space program has served our nation well, always figuring into our collective perception of ourselves. In many ways, space exploration, while saddening us, has saved us. It always has pulled us together. Glenn's Earth orbit on Friendship 7, for example, restored the nation's pride after the Russians had orbited the earth in convincing fashion twice before us. Subsequent U.S. launches during the 1960s came when the country needed them most.

Walter Cronkite -- who, as the CBS News anchor, covered the Friendship 7 flight and many others -- said this of NASA's efforts during the 1960s: "The space program was a major factor in maintaining some balance of what our country was all about. That period was the most traumatic decade this country had since the Civil War. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War . . . The country was splitting apart. The great thing about the space program in those days was (that) it kept us dreaming about the future, which had a very salutary effect in maintaining national sanity."

Glenn, too, understood the significance of his Mercury voyage. "It was almost like we had turned a corner in our national psyche, almost as though we were at a low point and were starting back," he told the New York Times in 1998.

When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, the nation mourned. Disillusioned, many of us felt responsible for the deaths of our space pioneers. How had we failed? What did the tragedy say about us? After all, the space program -- the shuttle effort in particular -- had come to represent our growing sense of technological invincibility.

The Challenger disaster even dampened President Reagan's "Morning in America" optimism. Several years passed before many of us could watch reruns of the accident on TV. Many TV stations still refuse to air footage of Challenger's actual explosion.

And now we are faced with the horror of Columbia. In terms of the nation's psyche, Columbia could not have happened at a worst time. We had just begun to heal from the wounds of the World Trade Center attacks -- where foreign terrorists killed thousands of our citizens and destroyed the twin symbols of our economic prowess in the world's greatest city.

Once again, as we had begun to put tragedy behind us and as we prepared to use our unmatched military arsenal to finally be done with the menace of Saddam Hussein, we had returned to taking our invincibility for granted.

At this moment, however, we are experiencing how profoundly the shuttle, its heroic crews and its scientific research, have come to define part of our national identity. Today, even as 82 percent of us want to continue manned space exploration, we feel diminished and not quite as sure of ourselves. We are not the people we were just moments before Columbia disintegrated over East Texas last Saturday.

Over the years, I watched 11 liftoffs from the Cape, the most recent in December 1998, when Unity, this country's part of the International Space Station, was launched on the space shuttle Endeavor. Many important people are calling for an end to manned space flights. I hope Congress ignores them and continues to authorize manned exploration.

Although dangerous and expensive, space travel is good for America. It is good for the rest of the world.

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