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Happy 50th Birthday, NASA!

08/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I read Odyssey magazine religiously, put up a space shuttle poster on my wall, envied friends who went off to Space Camp, wore out an old VHS copy of "The Dream is Alive," and, once or twice a year, piled into my dad's car to drive four hours each way from Atlanta to Mecca -- the Huntsville Space Center -- where I'd learn to pronounce "Wernher von Braun" and press my dad for astronaut ice cream.

I was a regular astro-boy. Action figures and dinosaurs couldn't turn my eye. There was only one infinity for me. Over years of magazine back issues, I learned fact after fact about the planets and their moons, the rings of Uranus and the Blue Spot of Neptune, which I used to recite ad nauseum and bore anyone within 15 feet of me. But it's all vanished now, gone with the wind, replaced with later obsessions with computers, video games, Russian literature, baseball, rock music, action movies, and religion. Like Homer Simpson, every time I learned something new, it pushed some old stuff out of my brain. (All together, nerds: "Remember when I took that home wine-making course and I forgot how to drive?")

But you never forget your first love, even if your hearts began to redshift apart when you were still in kindergarten. I didn't completely leave the neighborhood, subscribing instead to Scientific American, reading In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, and reveling in high school single-variable integrals. I started wearing out a VHS copy of Apollo 13. Still, neither of us was getting any younger, and as Ralph Fiennes pointed out in Quiz Show, "Of course, as you know, all the great physicists were great before the age of 25." Time was running out, and we had both moved on.

I may never make it to the moon -- though I suppose I shouldn't completely give up hope -- but I still wish space well. And that's why I'm raising a glass to NASA's 50th birthday tonight. These may not be the salad days any more, with the space race and SDI long gone, and The Right Stuff itself about to turn 30, but the half-century mark is still an impressive tally for any government institution, and NASA's one of the very few that most people regard fondly. (Their budget's just $17.6 billion taxpayer dollars, and considering that their purview is virtually everything in the universe other than earth, that's pretty svelte.)

Unfortunately, space isn't much of a final frontier any more -- she's been around the block a few times, and I'm not sure my first time would be as magical as when I was 5. So I'll be drinking her birthday from a safe distance, hopefully protected from microwave radiation, solar wind, and the jealous eyes of my injured and terrible Atlanta Braves. (I still love them, but... anyway, it's about time I started drinking in happiness for a change.) And space will go on doing what space has been doing all these years, expanding, getting older, and inching closer to the heat death of the universe, one of the few things that still helps me put $4.00 gas in perspective.

But the space camp grads and astrogeniuses at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are doing everything they can, and ultimately I trust space in their hands even more than in my own. So happy birthday, NASA, and good luck. Tell space I said hi.