Watching History


When I was a little boy, I dreamed of being an astronaut. I longed to experience weightlessness, and to see the disc of the earth framed in the black void of space. I wanted to wear a spacesuit and bounce on the moon and be a part of something important. I remember with fondness the excitement surrounding Space Shuttle launches, devouring books on all things space, and being insanely jealous of my friends who went to Space Camp. As I grew older the realities of space travel became appearent, and in the last few years the crushing slowness of beauracracy has taken away almost all the glory that space travel once held for me. I knew I wasn’t going to live in a lunar colony like I dreamed of in my youth, and I likely wasn’t ever going to enjoy weightlessness in my lifetime. Space became just one more childhood passion soiled by economics and politics.

But today, I watched with quiet fascination as SpaceShipOne successfully climbed to 62 miles above the surface of the earth, and then returned safely. It took nine years to design and construct and the entire operation, including today’s successful launch and landing, cost about US$20 million, which is a fraction of the US$450 million it costs NASA for a single launch of the aging Space Shuttle. I was literally speechless, first with anticipation and then astonished joy, and several questions percolated through my mind: will one day Melville leap as quickly to mind as Aldrin, Armstrong or Glenn? Will this truly usher in a new age of space exploration? Will kids today be as interested in space as I was? Had I just watched something as revolutionary and motivating as Sputnik or the moon landings?

While watching the flight, and listening to crowd reactions, a wave of positive emotions swept over me. I kept thinking to myself this morning that this was the sort of thing that should get top billing on every news outlet in the United States – possibly the whole world – as a clear, successful example of effort, innovation, and growth. This is a tremendous positive, a reinvigorating moment that we desperately need in these times of fierce political fighting, depressing news, and lousy economic conditions.

Don’t get me wrong: news about the conflicts in the Middle East, and information about the looming U.S. Presidential election, and the whittling away of civil liberties are all very important things. But the successful launch of SpaceShipOne transcends political affiliation and promises to improve the lives of all people. Industry can rally behind privatized spaceflight; children can once again marvel at the wonders of space; and science can improve our every day lives without relying on the U.S. government’s benevolence toward NASA.

The last two times I was glued to news reporting of any event were the invasion of Iraq and the September 11 attacks. Both were horrific, filling me with sorrow that we’re still brutal and barbaric toward one another. I’m appalled that we – as individuals, nations, and a species – can’t find better ways to get along and live together. The success of SpaceShipOne offers me a glimmer of hope that one day, maybe even during my life, we can all apply ourselves to pursuits of real value to our planet and to our species, instead of those that only benefit one faith, one political faction, or some other limited collection of individuals.

I earnestly hope that the event I watched today becomes as important to future generations as it is to me right now.

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