On Saturday, May 30, I watched on NASA TV the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Rocket ferrying the Crew Dragon capsule and veteran astronauts and good buddies, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, into Earth orbit to meet up with the International Space Station. The mission was flawless. Crew Dragon, compared to the Mercury and Apollo relics from the 1960s, was spacious and roomy. The astronauts were resplendent in their stylish futuristic space suits loaded down with only their iPads.
When the countdown reached Ignition, the engines fired up and the skyscraper began to lift off the ground, I cried. This was historic, momentous. We had not sent American astronauts into space on one of our own rockets since the Space Shuttle program ran its course in 2011. Never before had we sent anyone into the heavens in a capsule perched on a rocket designed, built and operated by a private company. Getting everyday folks into space was no longer a dream—we were right on the cusp of that becoming a reality.
And when Falcon 9’s first stage dropped from the stratosphere a few minutes later and hit the bullseye on SpaceX’s drone barge, Of Course I Still Love You, my jaw dropped and I shouted to my wife, Hilary, and anyone else within earshot, “WHAT CAN’T WE DO!”
I was euphoric and transported back in time to memories of American space achievements past. My first was etched on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard became only the second person to be propelled beyond Earth’s atmosphere and return safely in the Mercury capsule. Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin had snagged 1st place in that race a month earlier.
I was eleven years old in Mrs. Piper’s fifth grade class in a Chicago suburb. She brought her transistor radio and we were riveted to the broadcast. Upon splashdown and successful recovery of the capsule and our new hero Astronaut Shepard, we sprang from our formica desks and erupted in cheers. We jumped around as though the Cubs had won the World Series.
We were so proud, so inspired, so hopeful. Maybe if we studied and worked hard, we too could go into space or help others get there.
That memory and those of the historic American space missions that followed that decade filled me with joy. I couldn’t wait for the Sunday paper to arrive and read more about the triumph of Saturday’s extraordinary and certainly life-changing launch.
I made coffee and then fetched the San Diego Union Tribune off our driveway. I was full of anticipation as I slid the paper our of its plastic sheath. There was nothing about the launch on Page 1. Likewise, on page 2. I kept turning pages until there it was… one article, half a page, a couple of small photographs.
What should have been the biggest story of the day was pushed to the back of Section A. I was sad, but not surprised.
The front page was devoted, as it should have been, to coverage of the protests and violent riots raging in San Diego and across the country in the aftermath of the senseless, brutal, killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The pages that followed covered more of that heartbreaking and stomach-turning story as well as the ubiquitous updates and warnings about COVID-19.
Not only is America consumed by anger and frustration over the seemingly endless targeting and killing of African Americans by law enforcement and vigilantes, we are reeling from the loss of life, jobs, financial and emotional security and hope from the silent, invisible, COVID-19 virus.
That’s what made me so sad. What should have been a day of celebrating a major milestone in the journey into deep space, too many Americans can only think about how to get through another day without enough food, shelter, a job, and a safety net. Too many Americans are trying to get through another day and not be laid out or killed by a disease no one can see, or by blatant discrimination everyone can see, but we don’t do much about.
It is too much.
I longed for the days of my youth when things were simpler, easier, safer and happier. The days past when American triumphs in the space-race were wildly celebrated and took over the entire front page. I took a walk back in time with the expectation that might make me feel a little better. Walk with me.
1961-Alan Shepard first American, second person, to reach space.
Here’s what else was going on that year.
John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as our 35th President, and three weeks after Alan Shepard returns to earth, he unveils this audacious goal in a speech before Congress: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
U.S. Cuban exiles backed by the CIA mount an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. The operation, known as the Bay of Pigs is a complete failure and utter disaster.
The Cold War with the USSR continues to worsen with both sides testing ever-more devastating nuclear weapons. Americans are building fallout shelters in earnest.
Construction is started on another ill-conceived wall–this one around West Berlin that will attempt to stop those living in Soviet-controlled East Germany from entering the democratic West: The Berlin Wall.
The U.S. puts its first boots on the ground in Vietnam.
Freedom Riders test a Supreme Court desegregation decision by riding racially integrated interstate buses into the South and are attacked by white supremacists.
1962- John Glenn becomes the first person to orbit the earth in the Friendship 7 Mercury space capsule
Also in the news….
The Beatles release their first single in the U.S.: Love Me Do.
The first Wal-Mart and Motel 6 open.
Miss Oswald’s Itasca North 6th Grade Class graduates to Junior High.
James Meredith, amidst violent protests by white supremacists, becomes the first African American to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi. An Army veteran, Mr. Meredith would graduate in 1963 and become a leader and pioneer of the Civil Rights movement.
The U.S.S.R. secretly installs nuclear tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba and only ninety miles from the Florida coast. The intense standoff that unfolds in October, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, is as close as we’ve come to all-out nuclear war that could have resulted in the loss of millions if not hundreds of millions of lives all over the world.
1968- In December, America’s Apollo 8 is the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon
In other news from 1968….
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 39, is assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, and violent protests and deadly riots erupt in over 100 cities across the Country.
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated on June 5 at a Presidential campaign event in Los Angeles.
The Rev. King and Senator Kennedy were adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War which is raging. 537,000 U.S. troops are in country. There’s the bloody Tet Offensive by the North and the shameful My Lai Massacre of civilians by American troops. Protests against the war continue to erupt around the world.
Chicago hosts the Democratic Convention that summer. Ten thousand anti-war protesters assemble in Grant Park and are met by 23,000 police. Mayor Daley attributes the protests to “professional trouble-makers.” The ensuing bloodbath incites more protests and riots.
At the Olympic Games in Mexico City, medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bow their heads and raise their black-gloved fists during the playing of the National Anthem. They are widely condemned for their Black Power Salute.
1969- On July 20, Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first human being to walk on the Moon as 600 million people all over the world watch on live TV.
President Kennedy’s ambitious goal had been achieved with a few months to spare. Tragically, he was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, and did not live to see it.
Also in 1969….
In August, 500,000 come to Max Yasgur’s farm in New York for one of the most famous musical festivals of all time: Woodstock
The war in Vietnam continues to rage under the leadership of new President Richard M. Nixon. 500,000 march on Washington D.C. in protest.
The draft lottery takes place on National T.V. as birthdays are pulled out of a drum and seal the fate of those young men who will be compelled to serve in Vietnam. Many will flee to Canada.
Later that December the Gauntt family travels to Panama to celebrate Christmas and go deep-sea fishing for a week on the Manana IV off the coast of Columbia. It is the best vacation the family ever had together. It was also the last.
Upon reflection, for as long as we’ve been putting men and women into space, we’ve been mired in the muck of war, racism, religious persecution, riots, protests, violence, needless deaths, inequities, injustices, hate, and political upheaval. We, as a country and a world, have accomplished some amazing, mind-boggling achievements. Over that same time, we’ve continued to do so many horrible things to our fellow human beings and stepped more than once to the brink of another World War.
As I look back over my seven decades on this rock, I sometimes wonder how in the heck any of us are still here.
A part of me—no, actually, a lot of me—thinks maybe we need to spend a little less time and money on the dream of colonizing Mars and galaxies far, far away, and more on the realities and challenges of how can we survive, and maybe even thrive, on the planet we’ve got.
On the other hand, realizing the dream may be the only way we can get a few humans off the planet while we still can.
This Boomer will continue to pray–and dream–that one day our country’s space achievements can return to page 1 because they truly are the most important news for all.