If you were born in the early 1960s, as President Barack Obama was, then you were 7 or 8 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. The buildup to that seminal event would have been tremendous, and it would have been one of the first major historical events of which you were aware. And, in the years that followed, the general feeling surrounding America’s space program would have been one of immense pride — a great race against the Soviets that we had won.
But if you were born in the late 1970s, as I was, then you were 7 or 8 years old when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the Florida sky on Jan. 28, 1986 — 25 years ago today.
It was one of the first major historical events that people my age experienced, and we all experienced it in one way or another because the buildup to it was great. Everyone in my first-grade classroom — throughout the entire school, and in every school across America, I dare say — knew the name Christa McAuliffe. In line to be the first teacher to reach space, McAuliffe had been the object of space-themed lessons for days, if not weeks, leading up to the launch date. Looking back, I suspect her space mission was seen as a way to inject the thrill of the space race, and all its technological wonder, in a generation that had grown up with shuttle launches as an assumed fact of life.
Then came the explosion.
If you’re my age, there’s a good chance you watched it live on television — followed by a frantic scramble by your teacher, the teacher next door, every teacher in the building, to get that sight out of your eyes, for the principal to come over the intercom and try to make some calming sense of what had just happened.
And, rather than getting the space bug, most of us instead watched the denouement of America’s space program. The crash of the Columbia — when you were in your early 20s, if you’re around my age — was like a final blow.
There may yet be great endeavors in space for Americans to work toward, to witness, to celebrate. I come here today not to bury NASA, but to explain why the constant references to moon shots, to “Sputnik moments,” by baby boomers don’t necessarily motivate Americans my age.
The combination of being born after space travel was an assumed fact and watching this point of national pride crumble into nigh-irrelevance has rendered these allusions practically meaningless to us.
Then throw in the “big things,” as Obama called them in his State of the Union address Tuesday, to which they’re supposed to inspire us. As the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger wrote after Obama’s speech, “High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.”
If the space race was the kind of “big thing” — read: “big national-greatness-liberalism thing” — that proved what government could do, what does the post-Challenger space program prove about “big things”?
Sure, it’s not that simple. But know this: If you want to prod my generation to take up a national project these days, find a new final frontier.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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