what happened to NASA?

1 08 2007

As a kid, I remember seeing a scrapbook my mother kept in storage. It had lots of faded, yellowed, news clippings about the Apollo and Gemini space missions from the newspapers – exactly what Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff. Apparently, she also followed those events closely back then.

She ended up pursuing a graduate degree in Biology, which I imagine was not a path nearly as common for young women then as it is today (and even now, there are disproportionately low numbers of women in the math, science, and technology fields). I imagine her excitement towards those early spaceflights probably contributed to her interest in science.

As a little kid, I had my own plastic Space Shuttle toy, with rolling landing gear and a cargo bay with doors that opened up. It had a couple of stickers on the outside, one of the American flag, and a smaller one underneath the flight deck window with the name of the shuttle printed on it – Challenger.

My first experience as a child with death came when I watched the real-life version of my toy disintegrate live on TV in my elementary school classroom. At the time, I knew something terrible had happened, but I didn’t fully connect with the fact that seven lives had been taken.

Back then, if you asked any of my classmates what they wanted to be when they grew up, you’d probably get a range of answers – fireman, race car driver, and astronaut were probably the most popular.

I later went on to go to the Delaware Aerospace Academy for a couple of summers, basically a camp for space geeks. We practiced shuttle landings with a simulator, toured a Lockheed Martin plant, and built elaborate model rockets. These were the kids that said they wanted to be astronauts back in elementary school, the Challenger horror had not turned us off at all. The camp was just going to be our first step on becoming the first generation to travel to Mars, just like my mother’s generation traveled to the moon.

Fast-forward to 2007. In the last couple of months, we’ve seen headlines like:

“Astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak was arrested this week and charged with attempted murder after driving 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, Fla., allegedly carrying a knife, a BB gun, pepper spray, latex gloves and rubber tubing—wearing a diaper all the while so she wouldn’t have to stop en route—and assaulting a romantic rival in a parking lot.”

“At least twice, astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so drunk they posed a flight-safety risk.”

The Right Stuff, indeed. Aldrin and Amstrong would be proud.

Is it too much to ask to have a space program that America can respect?

There are still those out there that dream of shooting for the stars, instead of tabloid headlines.

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