Today, May 5th, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the day Alan Shepard trusted the engineers and scientists to launch him into outer space and return him in one piece. He became the first American in space; Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat America by almost four weeks to become the first man in the world in space. Twenty days later on May 25, 1961, President John Kennedy announced a goal to send an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade.
No bi-partisan fighting. No positioning. The nation united to commit to making this feat happen. The mere scope of this project was mind-blowing. Human lives would be lost along the way. Massive amounts of federal funding were made available to employ thousands of engineers, technicians, machinists, designers, and scientists. Lest we forget the engineering tool to make all of this happen: the sliderule. There were also reams of paper, typewriters, pencils and straightedges.
During the 1960’s America, in the midst of this race to the Moon, also endured the Vietnam War, student protests and unrest. The space effort made progress while all of this was going on. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects continued their research and experimentation. Intellectual capital built up at NASA centers and contractor sites across America.
Most of my friends’ parents supported the space program in the 1960’s. My father worked the Apollo program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a draftsman. I recall he had to spend a couple of months in California to help them catch up on some work. Overtime, straight time, traveling, whatever it took, the American workers kept the program on track.
President Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963. I can’t help but think that the senseless killing of our leader helped to spurn the American spirit to make his dream a reality. The space program endured and grew over the next years.
Culminating with live television coverage on July 20, 1969, of the first manned space walk, we had met Kennedy’s goal. I’m convinced every television in America tuned into this spectacle. After that night I never looked at the moon the same way again. The moon that at a young age I’d been convinced was made of cheese, that there was a man in the moon already, it seemed odd to think that a human was actually walking on its surface.
After college, I had thoughts of becoming an astronaut. I filled out the lengthy application and sent it into NASA. I never received a call. The interest in astronaut training was still at a fever pitch in the 1970’s. All of us children of the space race longed in young adulthood to be a part of it. Soon the educational requirements included advanced degrees and military experience. I had neither.
Unfortunately, federal funding dried up after the Skylab space station in 1973. Our national goal had been made and it seemed the space community floundered, trying to find the next big thing. The space shuttle program and International Space Station programs of the 1980’s and 1990’s just didn’t carry the same punch of the race to the moon. NASA suddenly had to fight Congress for its ever-shrinking budget. The public became focused on social programs and interest in discovery waned.
As I’ve discussed before, I’m very concerned about the lack of opportunities to innovate. It seems we are fixated on burgeoning profits at the expense of bringing innovative ideas to the forefront. We’re lacking a national initiative, a goal to bring the country together, to inspire that spirit and drive to be the best, to be number one.
It took a leader with a vision to make the race to the moon a reality. What is the next frontier for America? Energy? Agriculture? Space exploration? After all we’ve only scratched the surface, so to speak. There’s a huge galaxy out there to experience. What can we do to instill that spirit into America’s leadership and STEM communities? It all starts with an idea, a notion.
Get to thinking; the sky is truly the limit. We are only bounded by the limitations we place on ourselves. Encourage others to pursue STEM careers. Finish your own STEM studies. Discuss and talk ideas to co-workers, friends and relatives. Make it happen. Start a movement. You have until the end of the decade to make the next mark. Go!