Home, Sweet Home: The Joy of Our Return to Space

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I sat fixed in front of what seemed a massive TV screen, my eyes glued to the shreds of white steam shooting from the rocket’s body.

My own body remained tense. “Would the mission be scrubbed at that last minute?” “Would there be an in-flight ‘anomaly’?” “Is there any Tang left?”

What year is it?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

1968? It was a terribly bad year.

1969? It was a joyful year of ascending achievement.

Today? Well that’s an interesting idea.

Let’s return to the beginning. If you’re a member of the “space age” generation (like me), you’ll enjoy (and reflect) on this brief trip down memory lane. If you’re too young to remember the 1960s, you’ll appreciate the eerie similarities that might have you question the all-too-familiar “this has never happened before” mantra.

A long time ago in an America far, far away…

People didn’t like the idea of sending a man to the moon. They felt there were too many problems here on Earth that had higher priorities. When President John F. Kennedy announced his goal to go to the moon before Congress, he was met with strong opposition.

In Houston to mark the establishment of the new NASA building to be erected there, he spoke before a crowd of nearly 40,000 people (most students) at Rice University’s football stadium. He used the opportunity to make his case. Here’s in part what he said during that September 12, 1962 speech:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”

Years later, when recalling this, one of Kennedy’s most famous speeches, it was that last line those in attendance remembered. Kennedy added that line at the last second. The young students might not have cared too much about his references to geopolitics. They were, in fact, quite polite as they listened to the president.

But in the moments after Kennedy said something they did care about – “Why does Rice play Texas?” the crowd cheered. Slowly at first, then loudly, then enthusiastically when it became apparent cheering was allowed.

Kennedy, however, didn’t pause after that added line. He immediately launched into the first sentence of his next paragraph. Then he paused.

Did he do this on purpose? He certainly understood rhetoric and the power of image.

Here’s how that part of the speech sounded:

(polite attentive silence as Kennedy speaks) “…Why does Rice play Texas?…” (crowd begins to awaken in recognition of what Kennedy just said) “…We choose to go to the moon…” (Kennedy continues as the crowd begins to clap. He then pauses as the cheers crescendo towards peak enthusiasm. Just before the peak, so as to make sure his first words appear to incite that peak, he begins again with the following words:)

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Perhaps because of the juxtaposition with the cheering crowd, this is the portion of the speech we most remember today. It’s often cited as the true launch of the Apollo program.

The dream of going into space dates back hundreds of years. And it wasn’t just to explore the universe, it was also to contemplate ourselves. Galileo Galilei wrote his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: “If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night, it would look to you more splendid than the moon.”

More than three-and-a-half centuries later, Frank Borman, Commander of Apollo 8, echoed Galileo. In a 1999 interview for the PBS TV show Nova, Borman said “[The Moon] was a sobering sight, but it didn’t have the impact on me, at least, as the view of the Earth did.”

The awe of America’s space program inspired us all in different ways. It defined us for more than a decade, from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. We watched with intense interest. We marveled at the sights sent back to us from space.

And we did reflect on our place in this great universe. James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot, Apollo 15 (July 1971), perhaps best expressed this when he said:

“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away, it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”

You could understand my deep sorrow when America cancelled the shuttle program. I felt it was a step backwards. This wasn’t because the space shuttle had been doing amazing things. It wasn’t. And it was our fault it wasn’t.

No, I was sad because it was definitive proof that America had given up the dream of space exploration. We had not done enough to encourage private enterprise to take over (like the European powers eventually did in that earlier Age of Exploration). On the contrary, we left fallow fields and just threw the keys to anyone interested.

So it was heartening to hear these words from a different president a few years ago. On December 11, 2017, as he signed his Space Policy Directive 1 focusing on returning to the Moon, President Donald J. Trump said, “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond.”

No less than Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of Apollo 11 and second man on the moon, captured the possibilities of this new initiative. He has said, “By refocusing our space program on Mars for America’s future, we can restore the sense of wonder and adventure in space exploration that we knew in the summer of 1969.”

This weekend’s launch of Falcon 9 brought our return to space. For the first time in almost two decades, America has sent a manned vehicle into space. Better yet, it was a combined public/private effort between NASA and SpaceX.

I sat fixed in front of what seemed a massive TV screen, my eyes glued to the shreds of white steam shooting from the rocket’s body.

As those nine powerful Merlin engines lifted Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley off into space, it also lifted my heart.

For reasons you might by now guess, “Home, Sweet Home,” filled my thoughts as a joyful smile glowed across my face.

Andrew Chaikin tells a story on page 134 in his 1994 book, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts about a telegram Frank Borman received following his return from space. It simply said, “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Thank you, Falcon 9. You saved 2020.

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