50 Year Journey From JFK to Atlantis

Today’s Courier Herald Column. God Speed to the 4 aboard The Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Twelve days from today, we’ll celebrate the 42nd anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first stop onto the surface of the moon. It was one small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind. His descent from the Eagle landing craft onto the lunar surface culminated a daring national dream that had been articulated by John F. Kennedy 8 years earlier.

Kennedy, in his “Special Address to Congress On the Importance of Space”, laid out four specific goals for space exploration. The first is the one most often cited and that most of us remember. America would choose to go to the moon, before the decade was out. The second was an appropriation for a Rover nuclear rocket as a means to achieve even deeper space exploration.

The final two goals are rarely mentioned, yet are perhaps the lasting legacy of the initial U.S. space program on our everyday lives. Kennedy asked for 50 million dollars to accelerate the use of space satellites for world-wide communications. He also asked for 75 million dollars to develop a satellite system for worldwide weather observation.

Today, we carry around “smart phones” with embedded GPS devices which allow us to navigate through the mundane paces of our day because of lofty dreams articulated by Kennedy in 1961. Despite having the most active tornado season on record, the degree of accuracy and specificity of warnings about approaching storms allowed an awareness of pending danger that was unfathomable a generation ago.

50 years after Kennedy’s speech that galvanized a nation behind a goal of space exploration, we prepare to send the final mission of U.S. Space Shuttles into orbit. Though weather may delay the mission, the final four shuttle astronauts, including Georgia Tech’s Sandra Magnus, should be blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center at 11:26am this morning.

Thirty years ago, the Shuttle Columbia began a new phase of manned space exploration proving the concept of a reusable space craft. The Columbia was lost during re-entry over Texas in February 2003, along with its 7 crew members. It was the second fatal disaster for the shuttle program, which has always carried a high degree of risk despite its image crafted to resemble an advanced form of modern air travel.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into lift off a frigid January Day in 1986, also taking the lives of 7 crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. Because of her presence onboard that mission, the launch of the shuttle was broadcast live through thousands of schools across the nation. It’s a memory that adults today in their 30’s and early 40’s carry as a defining historical moment.

President Reagan delayed the State of the Union which had been scheduled that evening, instead addressing the nation regarding the Challenger mission. In stark contrast to Kennedy’s 1961 speech, Reagan’s role was instead one to console a grieving nation, saying “we will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

He vowed the Shuttle program would continue, and after a long delay, it did resume. The Shuttle Atlantis will be the 135th and final mission, closing this chapter of America’s now realized dream of manned space flight.

We will continue to send American’s into space, and house them aboard the Space Station to continue scientific research. But it will not be American spacecraft that will deliver and return our astronauts, but Russian spacecraft. The same Russians that 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy warned were beating Americans and the free world into space. Today, we travel together, not as competing enemies, but as two nations who dreamed to conquer space travel, and won.

The dream for the next 50 years of space travel is less certain. The next mission remains unclear, funding is limited and dwindling, and the nation is less unified behind the cause. These are issues that can and need to be addressed, but that can wait until tomorrow. Today, or whenever Atlantis leaves the launch pad for the final time, we can look back at 30 years of Shuttle missions, and a 50 year dream, and say “well done”.


  1. Baker says:

    A big congrats to Ga Tech, as you mentioned Ms. Magnus, but also the 13 other astronauts they have had and also the 150 grads they currently have working for NASA. “Impressive Sir!”

    And this may seem like an out there comment but just roll with it. Take a step back for a second and think of the thousands of years of human history that went by with man looking up at the moon and wondering. Then within a hundred years of flight advancements, the United States said, we’re gonna put a dude on that. And we did. We’re the best. That’s it.

  2. sunkawakan says:

    Charlie, nice piece. I recall the days of the lunar missions all too well.

    As to the future of space travel, failing a unified – meaning global – drive to do so, I see little to suggest we’ll move far beyond the Earth-Moon sphere for some time.

  3. Dave says:

    Dang right, we’re the best! Always will be, too. With 1950’s technology we did what no one thought was possible. No one except the heroes at NASA. I saw most of the remaining Apollo astronauts in Dayton two years ago. All of them approaching 80. They were still badasses. Let’s recapture some of their moxie and swagger and become the superior nation, in every measurable aspect, we once were.

  4. Three Jack says:

    thanks charlie. nice reminder of what america can do if called upon by competent, well intentioned leaders.

    for what it’s worth, i think the next wave of space travel will be dominated by entreprenuers like richard branson who will be at the forefront of space-cations — http://www.virgingalactic.com/ — $20,000 deposit and you can be one of the first to fly virgin galactic.

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