There is a scene in the Clint Eastwood film Space Cowboys where Tommy Lee Jones' character "Hawk" contemplates his mortality beside the mothballed SR-71 spy plane he once flew right to the edge of space. Hawk is dying of cancer, his dreams of reaching the Moon will die with him, and the plane is actually the symbol of his character... a gangly, oil-leaking, dinosaur on the post-Cold War ground, that firmed up and flew like a bat out of hell once she hit Mach 1. It is a painful moment as the best pilot of them all fights emotion, watching his bird, and his dream slowly die under the desert sun, knowing he's not far behind.
Watching the news coverage of Space Shuttle Discovery clinging helplessly to the back of her 747 transport as she flew over Washington, DC-- and then Enterprise doing the same over New York-- on their way to their final resting places, summoned up similar emotions for me, a lifelong space junkie, writer and dreamer. And I'll bet it did for a lot of other people my vintage, as well.
You really had to be there, to fully get what the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo
And you'd better believe not one of us missed one second of that snowy, choppy video that Sunday night, beamed live from a quarter-million miles away as Neil Armstrong stepped off that ladder, uttering those immortal words that defined the space program and the Dream itself-- the eternal human longing to step out over the horizon to see what's out there.
I can't imagine feeling that kind of exhilaration, and sense of limitless possibility ever again. Just like today, the Sixties were a scary and confusing time for everybody, but the space program--and that dream-like moment in particular--not only re-assured us, it electrified the entire planet with the notion, that when mankind sets its mind to something, there is nothing we cannot do. If we'd only known... that that night in July was the summit of that dream, that we would never in our lifetime re-create that spirit, nor reach such a lofty height again... that when the last Lunar Module blasted off from the Moon's surface in 1972, that was essentially IT?
Please. Say it isn't so.
Watching Discovery and Enterprise's half-hearted victory laps kinda made me feel like old Hawk there, saying goodbye to a grounded, cherished friend, because, truly, the end of the shuttle program is the end of that Dream.
Now, to be sure, plenty happened in the space game between 1972 and last week. Legions of the country's finest men and women have served NASA and this dream that simply will not die, and served both well. More than a dozen gave their lives in front of us all on board their sister ships Challenger and Columbia, giving pause to the Dream, but never quite killing it.
The Shuttle Program was actually conceived at the end of the Apollo
Program, with the ultimate goal of regular lunar and interplanetary
flights. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but we really were
there once, building the infrastructure to boldly
go where no man has gone before.