This morning I had to leave the house before the launch of the shuttle Endeavor, but I heard it on the radio. The bad news is that I had to hear most of it on a radio broadcast of Fox News, because that was the first place I could find it covered. And, not surprisingly, the hypocrites on "Fox and Friends" couldn't stop talking about the administration's terrible idea of ending manned space flight and the space program in general.
Hypocrites, because, of course, the real story is one that would be very popular with them if the president wasn't a Democrat. The real story is that, for a while, the bulk of our effort in space will be handled by private companies rather than a government agency (and this effort is expected to yield better results, faster and cheaper, than NASA could working alone).
But listening to the launch, and feeling a certain connection to it because shuttle commander, Mark Kelly is married to my beloved Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, I thought back to my previous two personal connections, however remote, to space missions.
The first was Apollo 11, which many, many people found fascinating, since it was the first time human beings had landed on the moon. That moon landing occurred on Sunday, July 20, for most Americans. But I was in France on a student trip that summer, living at a lycée in Strasbourg. Our organization had made arrangements with a French TV station across the street to allow we Americans into the station to watch the landing. I went to bed that night, and then was awakened sometime middle-of-the-night-ish by people screaming and whooping and hollering. I dragged on some clothes and started toward the TV station. Apparently I wasn't sufficiently enthusiastic for one guy, who accused me of not being proud to be an American. I was. Extremely proud. I had also just been awakened from a sound sleep.
That was Monday, local time. And that night--which we christened Moonday--most of the guys (at least those in my circle) put on ties and the best clothes we had brought to France, and went to dinner in style. The Moonday continued every Monday evening after that, at least while we remained in Strasbourg.
The other event was the launch of Apollo 14, which my high school Astronomy Club (of which I was a member) went to Florida to watch. The bus trip, I recall, was 17 hours long. I shot the launch on Super 8 film, which I still have. The launch went smoothly, and the trip is remembered primarily for Alan Shepard hitting golf balls on the moon. But it's remembered by me for being the time I watched a rocket standing on the pad at the Kennedy Space Center, watched the incredible power of its massivew engines, the ball of flame it seemed to rise up on, and the majesty of its arcing ascent toward space.
I've since had the pleasure of meeting Buzz Aldrin and Eugene Cernan, two fascinating, heroic individuals who are members of perhaps the smallest minority on Earth--people who have walked on the moon. I'm still intrigued by the space program, and a supporter of exploration, even if it costs money, even if the benefits are far off and sometimes hard to pin down. Sometimes, the sense of wonder, the feeling of awe, are benefit enough.