On a clear Florida morning, the Space Shuttle Discovery rocketed off launch pad 39-B at Kennedy Space Center, little over two years after the catastrophic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its 7 member crew in 1986. The launch went perfectly and the crew returned to the Earth on October 3rd in a textbook landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
The morning of that launch, a life was forever changed. Eight-year-old Johnathan Bane was sitting in his second grade classroom watching the launch live on a dusty television sitting on a neglected cart held together by rusty bolts and duct tape. For those five minutes, he was transfixed.
Johnathan Bane, before he started to realize he was a jerk. The wide view of the orbiter, the orange external tank and two SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) strapped to the massive gantry was unlike anything he had ever seen in his life. When the engines ignited and went to full throttle, the blood rushed to his head and he smiled with wide eyes.
When the Discovery lifted off, he laughed.
People were in that thing! They were going to space, whatever that was! From that moment, he was absolutely hooked on space travel and astronomy. Then, his teacher dropped the bomb on him.
Man had walked on the moon…
His head exploded. (Figuratively, of course.) That thing he stared up at in the night sky, out of his bedroom apartment window had footprints on it.
That little boy was obviously me. Now that you realize this I can stop talking about myself in the third person. Frankly, it’s so exhausting. The next few years were a gathering phase of anything regarding the space program, and the beginning of my obsession with the cosmos. I had to know everything I possibly could about the Manned Space Program, I even went so far as to write NASA a letter about the program, and they sent me a brochure for Space Camp. My parents shot me down at that, as we were in no means able to pay for me to go.
I had decided my future, I wanted to be an astronaut. My hopes were dashed when I was (erroneously) told that my eyes had to be 20/20 without glasses to even make it through the front door. So, I learned everything I could, knowing that someday I would find a way to be involved in the space program, if only as a cheerleader.
Fast forward twenty-plus years, I recently committed to a new book called “Rekindling the Flame: The Revitalization of the United States Manned Space Program”, and in doing research I was learning about the NEW manned space programs, headed by commercial entities such as Space Exploration Technologies, (otherwise known as SpaceX), Boeing, and United Launch Alliance.
Being the geek I am, I went out to my local mall to try and get some kind of survey going which would tell me how much the average person is aware of these things.
Out of 250 people I talked to those three days, not ONE of them knew what I was talking about.
Houston, we’ve had a problem…
I really sat and thought about this for a good few days, poring over any kind of study about this phenomenon, and eventually I came to the conclusion that the US these days is so preoccupied with the petty materialism brought on by the digital age, that the idea of exploring outside the Earth’s sphere of existence seems somewhat trite. Instead of revering people like Sally Ride, Neil Armstrong and Stephen Hawking, they revere people like Honey Boo Boo, Kim Kardashian and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I hate to break it to you, but a Kardashian isn’t going to be piloting or designing the next generation spacecraft. Can we all just stop for a second and think about how good it feels to realize this?
I founded a non-profit organization, Project One World, to try and counter this. Basically it is an organization dedicated to sharing the excitement of space travel and the sciences with students. When I started to talk to people about this, I got excited, because THEY got excited.
I spoke to a group of high school kids recently about the space program and most of them had no clue that we had went to the moon. They had NO clue about the retired Shuttle Program. They had no clue that the Russians and the Chinese were still sending people into space. They had heard about Pluto recently (because of the New Horizons mission finally reaching Pluto this month), but they had no idea of the significance of the event.
However, they got so absolutely psyched about the idea that there were going to be manned space flights in the future, as I explained to them about the Dragon and Cygnus capsules developed by SpaceX and Orbital ATK. One of them even went to far as to say that he wanted to be on one of those spacecraft someday.
Then, the reality hit me. I may have just set the next Neil Armstrong on the path to his destiny. (As a side note, Project One World will be sending a young man or woman aged 12-14 to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama next fall in a contest called “Mission: Space Camp”.)
It is my firm belief that if we just showed the youth of today about the excitement of the space programs and the sciences, if we led them to the understanding that what they experience in their day to day lives is but a fraction of what they could experience, if we just showed them they could be so much more than consumers, teetering on mental life-support in a media/celebrity/pop culture coma, we could make the world a thriving metropolis of ideas and solutions, rather than the swamp of division and conflict exists today.
So, I suppose this article is really a call to action. If you believe, as I do, that space travel and the sciences are important, say so. Talk to people about Project One World, or about spaceflight in general.
After all, all we really have in this world is each other.