Twenty-five years ago I graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
When you attend an aviation-themed school an hour’s drive north of the Kennedy Space Center, you wind up with college buddies who are a mix of propeller heads and space cadets, and are generally kind of nerdy, but in a likable Star Trek convention kind of way. If you watch “The Big Bang Theory” on TV then you have met the personalities of some of my closest, life-long friends.
When we were all in school back during the mid-1980s, the movie “The Right Stuff,” had just made its first run in theaters, and there was no greater cinematic epic at the time for all of us at Embry-Riddle, and especially for those of us working on the student newspaper, The Avion.
My first writing job for The Avion, in the fall of 1984, was a ten-part weekly series on the history of the space program up through the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (in Russia they call it the Soyuz-Apollo Test Project!), all begun with the premise that “you’ve seen The Right Stuff, now find out what happened next.”
My first party with the gang at The Avion was a Right Stuff party, in which I dressed as Wernher von Braun, and my wife dressed as Trudy Cooper, complete with scarf and white gloves – a fashion statement I keep hoping will return thanks to AMC’s “Mad Men,” but so far no luck.
We watched “The Right Stuff,” we talked about the movie and we worked quotes from the movie into our conversations with each other. In fact, we still do.
We would hear of NASA budget cuts to the space station and tell each other, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” One of us would suggest something, someone would add to it, we’d debate it, argue about it, and then inevitably someone would say “What Gus is saying here is we got to stick together on this thing.”
But my favorite quote to this day is the one that we repeated after someone would say something we had heard many times before, were maybe a little sick of and wanted to make fun of, yet had just enough truth to it that by saying the line we were showing support in our own way.
During “The Right Stuff,” in the scene where the Mercury astronauts are introduced during a press conference, after John Glenn and Gordon Cooper had pontificated with inspirational words about how their family supports them and how important this effort is to the nation, and seeing how the news media is just eating it up and how the girls are crying, Gordo asks Deke Slayton if he agrees.
Then Deke says, “I agree absolutely with Gordo, but I don’t think we’re saying anything new here. I think we’re just saying the same things that need to be said, again and again, with fierce conviction.”
So with that long introduction I want to make the following point: our space program is not dead.
This past week I visited Washington, D.C. for some meetings at NASA Headquarters. On the way to the airport to come home on Friday, the cab driver talked about how his family had once visited Huntsville and saw the U.S. Space and Rocket Center there, and then said what a shame it was that we were shutting down our space program.
I took a deep breath and reminded him that six humans, two of them U.S. astronauts, are in orbit right now aboard the International Space Station. A probe called Curiosity is on its way to land on Mars in two months. NASA plans to launch a small telescope into orbit next week.
I told him that we just completed the first commercial cargo delivery mission to the space station, an event that bodes well for future commercial opportunities including ferrying humans into and out of space on American rockets.
I told him that while we don’t really know what to do with them yet, this past week NASA was given pieces of two spy satellites from the National Reconnaissance Office that, if assembled and launched, would be just as powerful and important to science, if not more so, than the Hubble Space Telescope.
And while I didn’t say this to the cab driver, I’ll remind you about two other events that happened just this week, namely Shuttle Enterprise’s barge trip through New York harbor to be delivered to the Intrepid aircraft carrier, and Tuesday night’s transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Both were space-related news that made headlines around our nation and the world and showed once again how fascinated people are with spaceflight.
In fact, I was at the National Air & Space Museum on Tuesday as the transit began and the place was packed with people waiting in line just to see a picture of the thing on a giant TV screen because it was cloudy over Washington.
The bottom line: people still are interested in space. The Kennedy Space Center, and the rest of our space program, remains open for business. Astronauts are in space right now. People everywhere continue to benefit in their daily lives because of space-related innovations. We’re staying busy. We always could be doing more. Our space program is not dead.
Of course, we’re not saying anything new here. We’re just saying the same things that need to be said, again and again, with fierce conviction.
I’d like to acknowledge the passing this past week of one of the great fantasy and science fiction authors of the modern space age. Ray Bradbury is most well-known for books such as Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and of course, my favorite, The Martian Chronicles.
And you may not know this, but Bradbury was very close with Walt Disney. In fact, if you have ever been to Epcot and gone through Spaceship Earth, you may be surprised to learn that it was Ray Bradbury who helped to spearhead that particular attraction and wrote the original storyline for the ride.
He wrote nearly 50 books and more than 600 short stories, and his words and ideas will endure for generations to come