In May, 1963, the astronaut sitting atop the Mercury-Atlas rocket "went higher, farther, and faster than any other American…for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen." So were the ending words of The Right Stuff, an incredibly inspirational film which followed the brave exploits of America’s space pioneers, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s famous book of the same title.
Heroes they were: Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and all the others who volunteered to charge into the unknown, routinely working on projects that more often resembled suicide missions than scientific research. While they garnered glory and headlines, these men were deeply driven by something far more important: the opportunity to put America on top in the Space Race, and in doing so, become part of arguably the most exciting time in all of civilization. These explorers opened the door to the final frontier, an astounding achievement that taught the whole of humankind that no dreams were too big, and that men and women could aspire to do things greater than themselves. They literally made true the can-do spirit that "the sky is the limit."
But their road was paved by ridicule and doubt. Just years before these men — and the countless unsung heroes at NASA — achieved the impossible, their ambitions were considered folly. Putting a man into space? Pure science fiction. Landing on the moon? Unthinkable, unattainable, unwise. Reaching for the stars? Grow up.
Yet a mere 58 years after the Wright brothers first took flight, America put those cynics out to pasture as Shepard blasted into the record books, with Armstrong later taking the greatest "step" in human history.
In addition to the lofty goals of exploring worlds beyond our own, the Space Race fostered something else: a fierce sense of nationalism that unleashed America’s competitive spirit as never before. And for good reason. The Reds beat us into orbit, hell-bent on dominating Outer Space. From that point, it was "game on." And you know what? We won. Repeated trips to the moon, deep space probes, interplanetary missions, permanently manned space stations and newly discovered technologies that later benefitted Americans in every aspect of their lives.
That undisputed American leadership was as bold as it was purpose-driven, the result of generations inspired to study mathematics and science like never before, all for the opportunity to do things no one else had ever done — to be on the cutting edge not just of technology, but of humanity.
The United States still had its problems, of course, but there was never the slightest doubt that it would continue to achieve unparalleled greatness as the most benevolent nation the world had ever known. From attaining civil rights for all its citizens to being the beacon of hope for oppressed peoples the world over — and yes, to push the envelope in space — America embodied the spirit that it would always be on an upward trajectory. Mediocrity, timidness — and fear itself —were not part of the American vocabulary, and dreams were simply visions soon to be realized.
But somewhere along the way, we lost that spirit. And oh how things have changed.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of The Great Decline — a situation we have brought upon ourselves — slogging through a tragedy which only seems to be accelerating.
We haven’t been back to the moon to unlock its vast secrets in nearly four decades. We have all but abandoned plans for a manned mission to Mars. And most telling, we no longer possess any means of transporting Americans into space, instead relying on the Russians to get us to the (misnamed) International Space Station — you remember, the one America engineered, constructed, financed and put into orbit. Yes, the same one which the Ruskies have decided to eventually abandon, allowing it to fall back to Earth as a crumbling fireball, a once-proud testament to American ingenuity vaporizing right before our very eyes. The symbolism to America’s fate is sickening in its reality.
And now we have a new adversary rising, challenging America at every turn. In addition to owning much of our debt, China now possesses the fastest trains, the biggest dams, the most dynamic growth, and an aggressive space program. That’s not an endorsement of the Chinese, but an angry lament that they have taken a page right out of America’s playbook, and worst of all, that this nation is paralyzed to counter it. Instead of rising to the occasion, as we always did before, the United States seems impotent, content to just watch the events unfold without so much as a last gasp.
The best example? Mitt Romney, campaigning for the most important job in the world — leader of the Free World and Sentry to American Dreams — lambasting Newt Gingrich’s plans to erect a permanent base on the moon, cut NASA bureaucracies, and incentivize the private sector to reinvigorate America’s space program. Romney went so far as to say he would "fire" anyone who dared propose something so bold.
Is that the kind of leadership America needs to get back on track? Think big, and you’re out the door?
But it wasn’t just Romney who attempted to kill Newt’s admirable vision. So many of the Republican Establishment who have been part and parcel to the deterioration of The American Dream weighed in, none more noteworthy than the Grand PooBah of Incoherent, Spineless and Worthless Political Hacks, John McCain, as he skewered Newt’s space vision by saying that "we ought to send Gingrich to the moon."
How pathetic have America’s "leaders" become when they can’t separate partisan politics for even one minute to agree on that which should be a no-brainer: a rejuvenated space program is so eminently important that it should be a centerpiece of any Administration?
Of course, the cost factor arises, as it should. But that is an issue that should be settled in budgetary debates. Instead of thinking big, as our leaders once did, the Romneys and McCains openly delight in mocking the dreams that still inspire so many Americans. And for what? Miniscule partisan advantage? Shame on them.
How can we afford to fund such a grand endeavor? The bigger question is, "How can we afford NOT to?" But it is a legitimate question, so here’s the answer:
First, it is imperative to use the presidential election platform as a bully pulpit, explaining to the American people how their money — and by direct extension, their dreams — have been wasted to fund ridiculous projects of absolutely no value, including so many entitlement programs which are simply unaffordable. It is necessary to identify the mistakes —by both Parties —so that they aren’t repeated.
Second, find concrete ways to save money. Ending the pointless quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan — which have cost Americans trillions of dollars — would free up huge amounts of capital. Reorganizing the military so that it isn’t guarding Western Europe from a Soviet land attack would also be a good idea, since that threat evaporated 21 years ago. And of course, common sense entitlement reform would free up trillions more.
Third, grow the American economy to increase tax revenue. We cannot tax out way out of recession and into prosperity, nor can we simply cut our way out, as that only places more people on the welfare rolls. But responsibly utilizing our vast (and unused) domestic energy resources to become energy independent will allow America to compete with foreign labor costs. Having the cheapest energy on the planet would be more than enough to resurrect American manufacturing and permanently jumpstart the economy.
A thriving economy means bold space exploration would once again be taken for granted. And if and when that happens, something else far more important would occur: the indomitable American spirit would once again nurture the achievable dreams of young children who fall asleep while looking out their bedrooms windows, gazing upon the moon and stars overhead with but one thought:
"…Someday I’ll be up there…."
An accredited member of the media, Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]