For thousands of years on Yom Kippur, Jews have gathered together to beseech their lord for forgiveness, and ask to be re-written into the book of life. So it was when I was 11 years old – in 1957 -- that the family attended services and as we usually did, dropped off my Landa cousins on the way home. It was sitting in their driveway on Sunnyside Avenue that night, that we heard the news on the radio. It was October 4th, and earlier that day the Soviets had, to everyone’s surprise, launched the first Sputnik satellite, the first man-made object to orbit the earth every hour and half, and in doing so, implied that, as my barber would later say, “… if they can launch it up there, they can certainly launch them over here.” It was the beginning of the Sputnik era, propelling us with a combination of fear and a bold desire to prove our worthiness. Science and math were all of a sudden returned to a position of importance in schools. Every kid I knew at Olympus Junior High wanted to work on the space program, even though we didn’t have much of one. A few weeks later our first attempt at launching a bird would end in a fiery mess as the Navy’s Vanguard rocket blew up on the pad. I’m sure the Soviets had more than their share of fiery disasters, but they didn’t have AP cameras aimed at them, so we had to just assume they did. Over the next few months a combination of worry and wonder would drive us into rethinking about the American space program. In less than three months, the Army, under Werner Von Braun’s leadership, would take up where the Navy failed, and launch our first Explorer I satellite, just 88 days after being asked to do so. Now THAT was the Can-Do we’d been brought up to believe was the American way. The news of Explorer I came in January ’58, on another Friday where, this time, I was in a car full of 6th graders who were returning from a night of Wrestling at the Fairgrounds. What we didn’t enjoy with Bobo Brazil and Dick the Bruiser, we more than made up for with the soaring news that the US had finally matched the Russians with a success.
Then, just a few weeks later, I remember racing into the kitchen still trying to pull on my t-shirt before school, tearfully announcing to mom what I’d just heard on the early morning news show (even then I was an AM radio addict): that another Vanguard rocket had, finally, been successful in launching its small payload into orbit. Those were heady days, when, despite the fear of Russian ICBMs, we thought the space age would make ‘anything possible.’ Stephen Sondheim writes about that moment in “Merrily We Roll Along,” with “Our Time,” a song which extols the power of optimism, youthful embrace of the unknown, and a self assurance that we could make the world what we wanted it to be. It is well known that I tear up at the opening of a new Trader Joe’s, but listening to that youthful plaint of “Our Time” gets me every time.
Somehow, perhaps with JFK’s brash challenge to go to the moon, we figured out how to do things which no one thought possible. We actually built the Apollo rockets (still nothing has ever flown mightier than the Saturn V) which went to the moon, and safely brought back its crew a half dozen times, and all this before the invention of the personal computer, GOOGLE, or even a ‘mouse.’ Pure slide rule and 1960s mainframe power. And ingenuity. Don’t settle for less than the ingenious. Through it all there was an amazing sense of discovery, and challenge to conquer the unknowns. Going to the moon, sending probes to Mars and Venus and the outer reaches of the solar system were part of what we grew up with. If you were a kid in the 60s, and maybe even the 70s, there was enough inspiration in the Manned space program to get you over the humps in those difficult science course finals. Somehow you thought that you could be a part of it if only you could master the Physics final, a Calculus exam, or a Chemistry lab. There were concrete reasons to succeed. If even for a moment you thought you would be the one responsible for that key piece of the puzzle which would get a rocket into orbit, you took it on as your own personal challenge.
Atlantis returns the last time
Not to mention the physical amazingness of the space program. I first covered a launch in May 1969 when Apollo X was sent for a final blueprinting of what a moon trip would be like. Standing on the sands at the press center, with my dorky tripod and 300mm lens, I felt the slapping rumble of the shockwaves of that Saturn V, a mere three miles away, popping off my chest as if Dick the Bruiser himself was there. I don’t know any one who views a big space launch with the casualness of eating a tuna sandwich. No, they are special. The look, the feel, the sound, it is something you don’t forget.
This morning I awoke in Glasgow (where I’m teaching a photo workshop), and tuned into the NASA tv channel to find out about Atlantis’ landing. I was at the Cape twelve days ago for the launch, one I just didn’t want to miss, as it was to be the last. Thousands of people came to see it, driven by the same kind of desire to share the experience as the million or so who came to the very same spot on the Titusville water front, to see Apollo XI in July 1969. I was there for both. In the pretty much the same spot, 42 years later. Now of course there were differences, the kind of differences which have marked our society. The kind which you wish you didn’t have to compare, but which you are obliged to. In 1969 there was one gas station, with one single Ladies rest room. There was always a line of 40 or 50 women, and never a grumble as they waited their turns. This month, the old Union 76 gas station is gone, replaced by a big Walgreens, with teams of porta-potties in the parking lot, and no small amount of grousing about having to wait five or ten minutes.
In ’69, the populace still looked relatively healthy. Microwave food didn’t exist yet; McDonalds was just beginning to start its big run to lead the fast food wave which we’ve all lived through. This time, the number of obese parents with their obese kids in tow was simply astonishing. It was like a constant stream, big parents and big children, and always big bags of snack foods tagging along for the ride. Scary stuff.
By most standards, the comparison of 1969 vs 2011 doesn’t bode well for us now. The interaction of folks, most now carefully ensconced in their Costco folding chairs (with holders on the arm rest for a Big Gulp) is less engaging. Everyone has a mobile fone, a “smart” fone (“smart” fones, not so smart people?) and is somehow finding solace there instead of dealing face to face with the people next to them. What is it about that next email which so takes people’s energy away from that which really matters. As if that email will change their lives. (Hint: it won’t!) As a reflection of the mental thrashing around of our times, the last Shuttle launch was one of those moments which while it briefly brought many of us together in Titusville, within minutes afterwards we were back to dealing with the ups and downs of the debt crisis, whether of not Fox News execs knew at high levels about the phone tapping, and the otherwise morose spirit which the paralyzed government seems to be caught up in. The President, having shown signs of vulnerability, is piled on by the Republicans. And instead of responding with incredibly illuminating positions which might fire the further imagination of the country and especially of youth, they keep dumbing down the agenda. The Manned space program came to an end this morning when Atlantis rolled to a stop. Watching it soar out of the Florida darkness, and flare its big wing for the last time, you couldn’t help but feel a sadness, not just for the scientists and engineers who put the damn thing together and made it fly, and fly so well, but for all of us who will now be the poorer for our lack of something to inspire us. There is nothing in banking, “financial services,” international trade, internet start-ups, or even “smart phone” technology which matches the pure wonder of seeing a big-ass manned rocket take off for space. Even if space is only a low-earth orbit of 150 miles.
Once Apollo VIII had circled the moon and taken that picture of the moon-rise in 1968, you would have thought that mankind would have understood some greater sense of possibility. That the earth could be seen as smaller than the moon was a humbling moment in the history of our planet and our people. But we’ve kind of let it all just slip away as the pain of dislocation and distress from the economic crisis of the last four years has more or less taken everyone’s breathing apparatus away. Imagination, the one thing you cannot buy at Costco, is that which we are most lacking. To see the end of the Shuttle program, for all its faults, is, to me, a painful and sad acknowledgement that we just can’t cut it anymore. I don’t really know what I’d do if I were the parent of an 11 year kid who might have once thought they wanted to do science, and, when they grow up, work on the Manned Mars mission. Do we just kiss it all off, and say, “another time…” that it will all have to wait until an age when Wall St. bonuses, paid for having trashed the economy, sublimate. That, I suspect is a very, very long wait.
For now, any further American manned space missions will require us paying millions to the Russians to ferry them up and back. It will be at least five years, probably longer, until we have some kind of vehicle of our own to do that job. I could be proven wrong: maybe one of the private groups working on manned space flight will somehow replace what NASA, for all its bureaucratic faults, was able to keep going all these years. I’d like to be proven wrong, but I worry that I won’t be.
Stairway to Heaven
Two weeks ago, when that last Atlantis launch took place in Florida, I was watching from my old perch on US1. Minutes after the Shuttle had disappeared into the clouds, and spectators were starting to stream back to their cars for the slow drive home, I kept my eyes glued to the giant plume of smoke which had been left in the ascent. I felt at that moment the appropriate song to play would have been Stairway to Heaven, as it seemed like you could just climb up that smoky pillar. In the water (the Indian River) below me, a single figure started running waist deep towards the launch pad, some 6 miles away. I could only see the figure in silouette. He would take a few steps, leap into the air, arms out, as if to personally wave on and salute the smoke-laden path ahead of him. The ballet of his motion belied perhaps more alcohol than Ballanchine. Two women walking back to their cars said, as they passed me, “ but what did you expect… he’s been drinking Jaeger Meister all night…” I could only imagine they were talking about one guy, the one in my frame. But perhaps he was the only one of us who really got it, understanding that for years to come, at least, no American would see this kind of smoky tribute to science, math, and a sense of communal adventure. I didn’t snort any Jaeger that morning, but in looking back, it might have been the nicest tribute that we could have paid. We’re just sayin’… David