I remember so very clearly watching Alan Shepard bravely sit atop a large metal cylinder, not knowing if he would return.
I recall feeling real worry as to whether or not John Glenn would be able to actually fly around the world and get back down safely. The whole nation worried . . . and stood transfixed as he so bravely did just that.
There were only seven of them in the Mercury program. We all knew their names. Some of us knew their wives names and the kinds of cars they drove. They really were heroes, those Mercury Seven.
America was preeminent back then. The Russians had us with Sputnik, but we never looked back after that.
Our astronauts were our inspiration.
We knew all of the Gemini guys, too. Not quite as well as we knew the Mercury Seven, but mostly so. And the Apollo guys.
Some made it to the shuttle, but the shuttle lost the "wow" factor early. Not a loss of admiration or respect, but rather an acceptance. The USA *could* do anything. We were invincible. True enough, there were other things out there that flew in the face of that notion of greatness and invincibility, but the space program was always there. And always positive. Always a focus of admiration. Always a source of national inspiration.
For fifty years it was there.
Half a century of space flight.
Half a century of crazy dreams realized. Half a century of national pride. A symbol of our greatness.
Today, with the last launch of the last shuttle, an era is ending. John Glenn said, just a few days ago, that the closing of this door will likely lead to the opening of another.
And maybe it will.
But there is loss, too. A feeling that something is missing. I dare say very few of us thought daily about NASA or the pilots and crew. We only pay attention when it turns from being the routine it was.
When we lost Chista McAuliffe.
Who would have known Mark Kelly's name were it not for the tragedy that befell his wife?
Our last generation of astronauts toiled in a remarkable amount of anonymity, really. We knew the program, but the people were increasingly anonymous.
But even through that, the space program was a high point; one of the measures of our national worth, national accomplishments.
For those of us who knew first hand the Kennedy years, it was also a continuation of Camelot, morphed from romanticism to technology, but a direct connection nonetheless.
A connection back to that time of hope.
I'll miss the space program.
I feel a greater sense of loss at its ending than I might have thought I would.
Using him as the symbol for them all: "Godpseed, John Glenn."
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