Tag Archives: space race

This is no ‘space race’

By John Kanelis / johnkanelis_92@hotmail.com

This is what passes for a “space race” these days?

Two insanely rich business moguls — Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — vying to see who between them can be the first to fly into the lower reaches of outer space?

Branson got there first. He did so today flying aboard his Virgin Galactic ship that he launched from an airborne vehicle that had taken off from a site near Truth or Consequences, N.M.

Branson and Bezos haven’t been calling it a “space race,” even though they both made a good bit out of the fact that Branson was going to get there first.

I damn near LOLed when I saw Branson chortling and chuckling about how the minutes-long suborbital flight was the greatest thrill of his life. It made me want to mutter: big fu***** deal!

I am still trying to fathom what tangible, meaningful use is going to come from the flight or the one that Bezos is going to take in just a few days. I hear things about development of a vehicle that could make space travel more, um, practical and affordable for the run-of-the-mill shmuck who wants to fly into space. As for the cost of flying aboard the Virgin Galactic vehicle or the Bezos rocket, if you have a spare quarter-million bucks laying around, then you can be among the first.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t always been this, um, cynical about shmucks in space. I applied to NASA to be the first “journalist in space.” That was in the 1980s. Then the Challenger exploded in January 1986 and all that went away as the nation grieved the loss of those seven astronauts — including the teacher picked to fly with them.

But this so-called “space race” bears no resemblance to the real space race that occurred after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 and then sent Yuri Gagarin around the world in the first manned mission in 1961. The finish line for that race was the moon.

Spoiler alert: We got there first … in July 1969!

I suppose the next real space race will commence once we get serious about sending human beings to Mars. I want to be around to watch that one unfold.

How about returning to the moon? How about going farther?

President Kennedy already had initiated the race to the moon. The United States was a distant second to the Soviet Union when he declared his intention to ensure that we “send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s.

Then the president implored us on. “We don’t do these things because they are easy,” he said. “We do them because they are hard.”

Well, Americans got to the moon first. It was 49 years ago today that the late Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the moon’s dusty surface and pronounced, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

He thrilled the folks back home. Not just in our country, but everywhere. Perhaps even in the Soviet Union.

Mission accomplished.

We sent several more missions to the moon. Astronauts planted flags, dug up lunar dirt and brought it back, they drove around on “lunar dune buggies,” and one of them — the first American in space, the late Alan Shepard — even hit a chip shot that went for “miles and miles.”

Then we stopped going to the moon. It became too expensive. The public lost interest. We won the race. The act of launching three people into space aboard a flaming rocket carrying many thousands of pounds of flammable fuel no longer fascinated the American public.

I am one American who lived through that exciting time. I want them to return.

Subsequent presidents have given somewhat tepid support for the initiative of returning to deep space. The end of the Cold War in 1991 removed the Soviet Union from the world landscape. The Soviet descendants, though, have continued to send explorers into space. They now carry passengers with them. Some of them are Americans.

I am acutely aware of the expense of such exploration. However, it was what we were put on this Earth to do, to reach beyond our planetary comfort and to learn more about the world beyond.

Donald J. Trump has continued the presidential push — such as it’s been — to return one day to space. I want NASA to redevelop its own manned program. It’s what we do — and we do it well.

My sense is that enough time has passed since the last moon mission that we’ll get quite excited when the next rocket blasts off into the heavens with crews that will take the next “giant leap for mankind.”

Let’s get back into space


John Glenn’s death reminded many of us old enough to remember such things about how space travel once thrilled the nation.

It was a new thing back then, when Glenn orbited the planet three times in just a little less than five hours. We were riveted to our TV screens. We held our breath. We prayed for the safe return of these men.

Then, oh so strangely, space flight became “routine.” Routine! Are you kidding me?

How ridiculous! You put human beings on top of a missile loaded with flammable fuel, light the rocket and hurl these humans into orbit at 17,000 mph. That becomes routine?

We launched men into orbit during the Mercury space program. Then came the Gemini program that featured two-person space ships. After that, it was the big one, the Apollo program that sent men to the moon.

Those missions became so “routine” that the space agency stopped sending men to the moon, apparently believing they had done all they could do.

Skylab came later. The space shuttle program followed that.

About six years ago, we grounded the remaining shuttle fleet — after two of the ships, Challenger and Columbia, were lost, killing 14 crew members. Routine? Hardly.

I’m recalling the adventure associated with John Glenn’s first flight into space and hoping for a time when we can send human beings back into space aboard our own rocket ships. Today, we’re relying on Russia to ferry our men and women into Earth orbit — and I’m trying to imagine how President Kennedy, who challenged the nation to put men on the moon by the end of the 1960s, would react that knowledge.

I came of age watching the space program take flight. I am old enough to remember how these missions forced us all to hold our breath when these heroes were thrown into space.

The next step awaits. It no doubt will involve sending humans way past the moon and toward places like Mars. I hope to live long enough to see that occur.

I will wait anxiously for a day when we can view spaceflight once again as the spine-tingling adventure it’s always been.

Hoping for a return of manned space program


The thought just occurred to me that of the original men chosen to fly into space, only one of them remains among us.

He is John Glenn, who’s now 94 years of age.

From what I understand, Glenn remains in good physical condition. But, hey, he is 94. At that age, you live one day at a time, or so many of the 90-somethings I’ve known have told me.

What troubles me particularly about Glenn’s advanced age is that once he leaves us, there will no one left from that exhilarating time who can argue forcefully for the return of the manned space program in this country.

John Glenn: still a legend

The Bush administration announced plans to retire the space shuttle program and then the Obama administration followed through with the plan. Two of the shuttles were destroyed by tragic accidents, leaving just three ships in use: Atlantis, Endeavor and Discovery. Challenger blew up shortly after liftoff in January 1986 and Columbia — with Amarillo’s Rick Husband in command — disintegrated upon re-entry in February 2003.

After the final shuttle mission — the flight of Atlantis in July 2011 — U.S. astronauts have been ferried into space aboard Russian rockets to spend time in the International Space Station. Think of that for a moment. During the height of the space race, of which Glenn was a major player, it would seem unthinkable that we’d ever have to depend on our adversary to take our astronauts into space.

We’re not hearing much talk during this presidential election campaign about the future of manned space travel. We don’t know whether Republican Donald J. Trump or Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton will light the fire that re-ignites our national pride in the effort to explore beyond the bounds of our planet.

I know that NASA is working on a new launch vehicle that will take humans into space. I understand the space agency has plenty of work on its plate; it has unmanned probes to launch and plenty of research to complete. NASA, though, seems to be working in a closet. Does anyone ever hear updates, progress reports on the development of that launch vehicle?

Americans have few legends who can speak with authority on such things. John Glenn — who later served several terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio — is one of them who can speak with clarity and credibility on the value that space exploration brings to us.

If only we could keep him around forever.

We cannot, of course.

I get that we have a lot of pressing issues that are consuming presidential candidates’ time and attention.

My hope is that we will start hearing from one or both of the major candidates about how they intend to accelerate our return to space exploration.

I relished those mornings awaiting those flights by John Glenn and his early astronaut colleagues. I’m ready to get excited once again.

Happy 92nd birthday, Alan Shepard Jr.

alan shepard

OK, so he’s no longer alive to celebrate it but I couldn’t let pass an item that I stumbled upon this morning.

The late Alan Shepard Jr. was born 92 years ago today.

Shepard enlivened a nation, invigorated our national psyche and gave us a sense of mission at a time when we needed it.

He did it simply by riding atop a rocket for a 15-minute ride into outer space. He splashed down a few hundred miles off the Florida coast into the Atlantic Ocean.

I was a youngster at the time. On May 5, 1961, when Shepard took off aboard that Redstone rocket, I was just 12. But I was fascinated, along with the rest of the country, by the notion of human beings flying into space.

The Soviet Union — which would be known later as the Evil Empire — had beaten us into space. Yuri Gagarin had orbited Earth a month before Shepard took off. The Soviets were beating us at our own game! President Kennedy would have none of it.

Shepard’s flight didn’t measure up to Gagarin’s orbit in the strictest sense, but it didn’t matter to a nation itching to get into the space race. Shepard’s successful flight put us in the thick of the fight.

He got another shot at space travel. A decade later Shepard commanded Apollo 14’s mission to the moon and hit that famous golf shot from the moon’s surface that flew for “miles and miles.”

I miss those days. I wish we could find it within our national spirit to insist on manned space flight. We’re now sending our astronauts into space aboard ships launched by our former arch-enemy; it’s called “Russia” these days, now that the Soviet Union has disintegrated.

Our space agency is developing a deep-space vehicle that eventually will take future pioneers to places like Mars and perhaps to the asteroid belt.

Is there national excitement as we await that day? Uhh, no.

We’re left to remember when gutsy test pilots such as Alan Shepard squeezed into tiny space capsules and flew aboard those relatively itty-bitty rockets. He gave us a national thrill that we haven’t duplicated in quite some time.

I hope I’m alive to see the first flight to Mars.

Meanwhile, happy birthday to a man former President Bill Clinton once described as “one of the great heroes of modern America.”


‘The Eagle has landed’

I might be the only person in America who did not watch Apollo 11 land on the moon via CBS News’s legendary coverage of the event.

I was tuned in that day to NBC News. I heard the late Frank McGee intone, simply: “Man … is on the moon.”

But the link here is of the CBS coverage of the event, which occurred 46 years ago today.

It brings to mind this simple truth: We grew complacent about space travel over the years.

We launched a space race to the moon with the then-Soviet Union. President Kennedy had declared in 1961 that the goal would to be to “put a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. We got there in the seventh month of the final year of that decade.

It was an exciting time. It was fraught with peril. But we knew that and at some level accepted the risk as part of the grand strategy, the goal. We had to beat those dreaded Soviets and by golly, we did!

The lunar program would end in 1972. NASA couldn’t justify spending so much money on missions that had grown — this is he word they used — “routine.”

There could be nothing routine about putting human beings atop a flaming rocket carrying thousands of pounds of fuel and sending them into outer space.

Tragedy would strike later. We’d go through the Skylab program. Then came the shuttle missions. Challenger blew apart on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members. On Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated on its return from space, killing seven more crew members.

Routine? Hardly.

But on that glorious summer day in 1969, two men — the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin — had us holding our breath as they walked into history.

Space flight video chokes me up

I am not prone to weeping openly. That is, I don’t just start sobbing when something pushes my emotional hot button.

But I tend to swallow hard, get a little choked up at sights. Historic videos do that to me.

I cannot, for instance, watch Muhammad Ali light the 1996 Olympic torch in Atlanta without getting teary-eyed; the same thing happens when I watch video of Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes in 1973 and the announcer says he’s “running like a tremendous machine!”; ditto for watching Sen. Robert F. Kennedy say “on to Chicago and let’s win there” moments before the gunman wounded him mortally in Los Angeles.

So … I’ve been choking back tears this week watching CNN’s series on “The Sixties.” The segment this week dealt with the space race. The United States competed with the Soviet Union to be the first nation to land someone on the moon. We won that race. It was a come-from-behind victory, you’ll recall.

The segment that does it to me every time I see it is the launch of Apollo 8, the first lunar orbit mission that blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 21, 1968. The launch itself is an emotional moment for me. It reminds me of when my late mother and I would get up early to watch the countdown of those Mercury and Gemini launches. The thrill is something that has never left me.

The CNN series, though, takes you through the launch and quickly to the point where Apollo 8 commences lunar orbit with astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders aboard.

Then, on Christmas Eve 1968, Borman pulls out his Bible as he trains the TV camera on the Earth-rise over the moon’s horizon and he starts reading from the Book of Genesis … reminding us of our world that God created.

Yep, that chokes me up.

1968 was a hideous year. The Vietnam War was going badly; assassins killed Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK; our streets were erupting in chaos as Americans protested the war.

Then, to have the commander of a space mission read on Christmas Eve from the passage in the Bible that takes us back to the beginning of our very existence in the universe …

As Tom Hanks says on the CNN segment, “Who wrote that script?”

Nation needs to be inspired again

John F. Kennedy wasn’t on the national stage all that long.

His presidency lasted about 1,000 days. He had served in the U.S. Senate a short time before that. He didn’t exactly inspire the nation with a lengthy legislative record. His time in the House was even less inspiring. Yes, he did serve heroically during World War II.

Even though his death — which the nation commemorated on Friday — took him from us much too soon, he did manage to leave behind quite a legacy of inspiration.

My favorite is attached here.


The president challenged a nation from within at a time when it was being challenged from beyond our borders. We were locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which would become known during the Ronald Reagan years as the Evil Empire. The Soviets were our chief geopolitical adversary then, far more than they are now — no matter what one-time Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney might have said a year ago.

We sparred with the Soviets for supremacy on the world stage. We sought to beat them in a race into space. We won that race.

But the remarks JFK gave regarding that challenge — that we do these “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” — spoke far beyond a “mere” race to the moon. He sought to challenge his constituents to accept any challenge.

As we look back on JFK’s limited but still-inspiring legacy, it gives us pause to wonder whether we’re up to that challenge again.

I keep hoping that one day — I cannot predict when — we can set aside the deep partisan differences in government and set our sights on something grander.

It might be that we need a foe we can identify, someone or something with a face, a name, a clearly defined ideology.

Absent that, we need leadership that can take us above the bickering that has stalled the machinery of our government. John F. Kennedy knew how to tap into our innate spirit of challenge.

I believe it’s still there, waiting to tapped once again.