|Photo: NASA/Jim Grossman
The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean silhouetting space shuttle Atlantis' external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida last month.
Atlantis' launch, shuttle's demise mean end for U.S. space race
By Rick Martinez
They are all names that ring strong in my mind this week, astronauts who have been etched into my consciousness because of their ties and roles with the United States’ space program.
Spurred by Sputnik, the Soviets and President John F. Kennedy, the space race has spanned more than my lifetime.
I grew up with the space race, watching the Apollo missions in prime-time television viewing — especially Armstrong’s first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969, with Apollo 11 and Apollo 13’s April 17, 1970, splashdown after not landing on the moon because of problems. I remember taking a break from a bicycle ride with friends under a tree to listen to a radio broadcast as Apollo and Soyuz hooked up in outer space on July 17, 1975. I recall distinctly what I was doing those mornings when Challenger (Jan. 28, 1986) and Columbia (Feb. 1, 2003) exploded in the skies.
To quote Star Trek: “Space: The final frontier.” Somewhat ironic, I know, given that Star Trek fans lobbied to have the first space shuttle renamed from Constitution to Enterprise.http://www.usna.edu/
The space program has gripped me solidly enough to bring a lifelong desire to get as close to its icons and artifacts as possible. I even once applied to become an astronaut, as a Journalist-in-Space Project applicant — a program sidelined by the Challenger disaster.
Its ongoing pull has brought me to visit places like the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio; Kennedy Space Center in Florida; John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston; Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio; McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, N.H.; Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom Memorial at Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Ind.; Grissom Air Museum in Bunker Hill, Ind.; Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium in Grand Rapids, Mich.; San Diego Air & Space Museum in California; and others.
|Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
A tour bus drives by a launch countdown sign inside the NASA Kennedy Space Center on Wednesdayin Cape Canaveral, Fla. Space shuttle Atlantis is set to liftoff Friday on the final flight of the shuttle program.
The astronauts I’ve gotten to best know over the years are Grissom and Shepard.
Shepard had, perhaps, the more illustrious career. A Derry, N.H., native, U.S. Naval Academy graduate and U.S. Navy aviator who served during World War II, he piloted Freedom 7 into orbit for 15 minutes on May 5, 1961, just 23 days after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space to circumnavigate the planet. A decade later, Shepard became the first person to walk on the moon while commanding the Apollo 14 mission.
A Mitchell, Ind., native and graduate of both Purdue University and Air Force Institute of Technology, Grissom served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Among the original seven Project Mercury Right Stuff astronauts, he became the second American in space with his 15-minute, 37-second orbit on July 21, 1961, aboard Liberty Bell 7, surviving a near-drowning after splashdown because emergency explosive bolts unexpectedly blew the hatch off. He flew a second time in space after Shepard was a scratch on March 23, 1965, piloting Gemini 3 three times around the earth in a 4-hour, 52-minute, 31-second orbit. During a pre-launch test for Apollo 1 on Jan. 27, 1961 — 25 days before its planned flight, command pilot Grissom, senior pilot Ed White and pilot Roger Chaffee died when the Command Module’s interior caught first and burned.
Grissom’s hometown of Mitchell is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his being in space with events July 21-23. The gathering includes appearances by two other astronauts, Charlie Walker and Ken Bowersox, who are both from just up the road in Bedford, Ind.
Meanwhile, I feel like we’re near the off-ramp for U.S. space history. I know we’re developing space tourism and privatizing the space program, but launching astronauts from Russia without having our own launch vehicle seems strange to me.
So, while I plan to watch Atlantis’ launch, I am going do so with a feeling of forlorn. For me, it means the space race is over.