I was at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral for the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, which is now on a 16-day mission at the International Space Station. You'll hear the fruits of my trip to Florida on this weekend's Bob Edwards Weekend and Monday, November 24th on The Bob Edwards Show on SIRIUS XM.
It's impossible to work in satellite radio and not feel a debt to the space program, but satellites have been important throughout my career. In 1980, my previous employer, NPR became the the first broadcast network in either radio or TV to distribute all its programs to stations by satellite. At the end of the first Persian Gulf War, I did my first interview by satellite telephone. My guest was in Baghdad, a place where phone lines were atrocious---but the satphone made him sound like he was in the same room with me. The future had arrived and the world was suddenly a smaller place.
We boomers like the space program because we watched it being born---it's our fellow boomer of roughly the same age. NASA is celebrating it's 50th anniversary this year, and 50 years ago I was 11, a very impressionable age.
The original rocket wizard was Robert Goddard (inventor of the bazooka), whose experiments in the 1920's made headlines.Twenty years later, Wernher von Braun used Goddard's research and technology to develop the V-2 rockets that carried bombs to Britain during World War II. Other Nazi's were hanged, but the United States put von Braun on the payroll. Our space program's earliest rockets were the work of our former enemy.
If you've seen The Right Stuff, the movie based on Tom Wolfe's book about the earliest astronauts, you know that it opens with news film of many of those early American rockets blowing up on the launch pad. Thank goodness they carried no humans! Futility and ineptness plagued the space program in the 1950s. In 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth, the United States went into full panic. Sputnik beamed an obnoxious-sounding radio signal back to earth that we took it to be an audible insult to our science and technology. The Soviets were saying "screw you" and might potentially make good on Premier Nikita Khrushchev's boast that he would bury us. The effect on us school children was immediate. We were blitzed with lots of new math and science curricula. I'd probably know a lot more Robert Frost today if the Soviets had not beaten us into space.
Those godless Reds beat us again in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human space traveler. Now the U.S.was really p.o.'d. President Kennedy made the outrageous promise that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Absolutely everyone connected with the space program at that time has said that when Kennedy spoke those words, no one had a clue as to how they could make that happen. Alan Shepherd became our first Mercury astronaut in space and the country was captivated by his adventure. I was shocked when my school installed a television set so that we could watch history in the making. Classroom TV's are routine now, but in 1961, a TV set in a classroom was like a loud drunk in church. They were ruining TV for us---turning the source of our goofing off into an educational tool---how dare they!
When John Glenn made three orbits of the earth in 1963, he was feted at the White House and got a ticker tape parade in New York. We were on our way---and sure enough---we were on the moon in the summer of 1969, just under the deadline, though JFK did not live to see his promise redeemed. It was a stunning accomplishment that cannot be scoffed at----and I am a born cynic!
The space program is responsible for a lot of modern technology we take for granted. The ubiquitous cell phone might have been developed at some point down the line, but I'm sure we sill would not have them if there hadn't been a need for miniature circuitry for space. We joke about Tang and Teflon, but the space program has delivered so much more. Space flight is routine now, but not for those pioneers who are part of the program. Twenty-three courageous souls have given their lives to advance our knowledge of space. They died in the Apollo One fire, the launch explosion of Challenger, the re-entry disintegration of Columbia and on training flights. They were young people with knowledge and skills our country needed.
About 7pm on Friday, November 14th, less than an hour before launch time, a gorgeous full moon rose above Cape Canaveral and sent its luminous reflections across the water separating us from the launch pad. I thought immediately of the Apollo program and how this would have been the "money shot" for photographers--the destination hanging there just to the right of the rocket that would thrust the Eagle toward the lunar surface. But there were no night launches back then. The launch I witnessed will likely be the last night launch in the shuttle program which is scheduled to conclude in two years. Future plans call for returning to the moon and you can bet those savvy NASA people will schedule a night launch on a day when a full moon rises next to a rocket about to blast off for that rendezvous.
Standing just three miles away as NASA lit that candle and sent Endeavour into space, I got the rush of a lifetime! More brave human beings were putting their lives on the line so that we will all know a little more about the universe. And we cannot know enough! When we're finished destroying this planet, we're going to need someplace to go and we're going to need to know how to survive there. The crew of STS-126 will add a bit more to that knowledge. We are all in their debt.
Bob Edwards hosts The Bob Edwards Show on XM Channel 133 and SIRIUS Channel 196.