The day the thrill of space died for my generation

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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65 comments Add your comment


January 28th, 2011
9:46 am

So, who appointed you grand emperor of your generation? The only big thing to come from the market are those wonderful financial instruments which sucked the life out of our economy, exacerbated the income gap, and created public deficits so large (so we can be sure that those corporations too big to fail, don’t) — never mind, your generation only cares about your individual selves – -country, society and fellow man are just accidents for your journey to self-fulfilled happiness…


January 28th, 2011
9:55 am

I was at work when this national tragedy happened. I worked while listening to the radio for about 30 minutes till my female boss came out and hatefully said “turn off that radio and get back to work”. Do you know what it’s like to have to work under someone who has no class whatsoever?


January 28th, 2011
9:59 am

Well said, Kyle. I’m all for space exploration myself but it just doesn’t have the same resonance for those of us under 50.

Historical note: I recall watching the news a few years back, and there was a brief story about AIG’s serious trouble, one of the beginning dominoes in our financial collapse.The next story was on the first spacewalk by the Chinese, complete with video. It was quite an “uh-oh” moment for me.


January 28th, 2011
10:06 am

Really nice piece of writing Kyle.

I am from the generation of the Sputnik launch. I remember the Kennedy call for the race to the moon. The opening of the Universe to mere man was a glorious thing to behold.

But then I learned about numbers. In particular numbers in budgets. In particular numbers in government budgets.

By the time of the Challenger explosion it was clear to anyone who looked that the Universe had been closed to man. Closed to man by his decision to have a 2nd TV and two cars. And the only way he could pay for the extra TV and car was to raid the Treasury in the form of tax cuts.

So we have had 30 years of tax cuts and 30 years of extra TV’s, extra cars and bigger homes. And I am sure everyone enjoyed the luxury.

But it was clear that something had to go. We elected space to go. And in the grand scheme of things, maybe for the best.

So Kyle, instead of passing on to your kids the universe, we are passing on to your kids, and my grand kids, a $14 trillion bill for the extra TV’s, cars and the Big Home. I trust they will enjoy their inheritance.

rant and roll

January 28th, 2011
10:10 am

my response: classless.

I watched the build up of the shuttle program – from conception to the 1st launch. 25 years ago I could see Challenger explode from my high school in FL.

I am amazed that you would take the opportunity to link Challenger and Columbia to political ideology? I am embarrassed for my generation if you represent them.

Challenger and Columbia are a tribute to the never give up attitude of Americans. The program continues.


January 28th, 2011
10:16 am

NASA & the space program are a prime example of what Government should do- Big G pioneered the way, cleared the wilderness, & showed that it could be accomplished – after the Apollo program the entire space venture should have been sold (with technical licenses, etc) to the highest private corporate bidder. We could still do that & maybe apply the funds to some of that damnable debt & deficit!

Ragnar Danneskjöld

January 28th, 2011
10:21 am

Pretty good hypothesis, Kyle. I heard someone suggest that we offer free one-way tickets to leftists who wish to move to an untouched pristine wilderness, unaffected by global warming – Mars. That is a frontier project worth pursuing.

Not Blind

January 28th, 2011
10:29 am

I support ‘near Earth’ space travel but anything else is just a complete waste of money, imo. All the probes to mars and beyond serve NO purpose.

Swede Atlanta

January 28th, 2011
10:31 am


I can appreciate that high speed rail and solar power don’t have the same sense of adventure and excitement as space travel but the public support and engagement for the space race was at least in some part driven by a sense of national destiny that is lacking today.

Kennedy’s bold challenge was made at the height of the cold war when Americans were focused on our rivalry with the Soviets. So not only was space travel exciting and the subject of an entire genre of adventure books and movies it was a direct challenge to Russia.

It may be hard to kindle the same level of energy and excitement but addressing our dependence on fossil fuels and at the same time improving the environment should be things we can gain national consensus around.

Wyle Kingfield

January 28th, 2011
10:33 am

Your generation take up a big National program? LOL.
Here are some of the things you sponge off of everyday.


January 28th, 2011
10:36 am

Excellent article Kyle, and as other have mentioned, NASA has provided many mutual benefits that we all enjoy other than Tang. Keep in mind the jobs that the space industry has provided over the past 50 years.
Let’s not forgot that our current POTUS has KILLED future NASA endeavors. Just another example of our mis-guided, mis-informed POTUS.


January 28th, 2011
10:49 am

Too busy texting to walk or drive, these days I see.

Joe the Plutocrat

January 28th, 2011
10:50 am

KW, with all due respect, mawkish tripe, and a bit disingenuos to play the ‘government spending’ card. as I noted in other forums yesterday, am I the only one (besides, perhaps jconservative) who is the irony in Obama’s reference to Sputnik? Sputnik was not the impetus for the “space race” it was a facilitator of the arms race. Cold warriors and fear-mongers laid the foundation for “missile gaps” and the need to feed the military-industrial beast, all in the name of patriotic space exploration. sure it was nice to have a reusable vehicle for sending astronauts and scientists into space – to see if mice can reproduce in zero gravity – but it’s nicer to have a reusable vehicle to deposit and retrieve spy satellites to see if the Soviets, Chinese (currently the folks in Central Asia and Persia/Middle East) are producing WMDs right here on earth. like your mentor Ronald Reagan (who may or may not have pressured NASA into an ill-advised Challenger launch, so that he might crow about US superiority during his ‘86 SOTU address) I find it disturbing that you are politicizing this incident. oh, and for all the political capital and upside to space exploration, I think the legacy of the Challenger explosion might actually reflect the abuse, malfeseance and corruption of the federal/DoD procurement process. can you say Morton-Thyokall and/or Rockwell? how about “shoddy O rings”? I know we like to re-write the American ingenuity narrative when we talk about how NASA’s efforts have led to microwave ovens, Tang, pocket calculators (already obsolete) and personal computers; but let’s dial down the reflective musing. your glib refrence to Apollo 13, which of course had a “happy ending” is equally out of line. anf finally, the Columbia did not “crash” in 2003. it disintegrated during re-entry, due to a heat shield issue, which may or may not have become evident within minutes of the launch. “crash” makes it sound like “pilot error” was the main factor.


January 28th, 2011
10:53 am

“…the Universe had been closed to man. Closed to man by his decision to have a 2nd TV and two cars.”

Really?? That’s the problem? Not, oh let’s see, failure of the education system (and parents) to graduate students who can read, write, spell, and do math by the time they reach adulthood? Or the breakdown of the family unit or the tolerance/social acceptance of illegal drug use?

Back in the day, you didn’t graduate from school if you didn’t learn the material. No such thing as social promotion. Most of us had two parents, except for extenuating circumstances – now it seems that marriages (and the children created by them) are disposable. (Not to mention having kids without a marriage at all.) Known drug users were social outcasts and the rest of us had nothing to do with them.

Using that logic, I suppose we should mandate everyone have only one TV and one car, and let that other stuff ride. That’ll fix it.

Swede Atlanta

January 28th, 2011
10:59 am


You think the President’s decision to significantly reduce the NASA budget that effectively kills, at least for now, any bold new space initiatives is mis-guided given our current financial situation?

You can’t have it both ways – cry about deficits and then support an extension or expansion of discretionary spending.

I agree that the space program has delivered many benefits over and above just taking men to the moon and returning them safely to the earth as well as programs to explore other planets and other space phenomena.

But for now I think the space program needs to be scaled back at least temporarily and focus our resources on more immediate needs. I also recognize that we run the risk of losing expertise and experience in this area if we don’t sustain the program but think the cuts may be necessary until the economy is stronger and we have set a more prudent financial course.

Wyle Kingfield

January 28th, 2011
11:01 am

LOL social outcasts. It’s the other way around StJ.


January 28th, 2011
11:20 am

Kyle, if you still want to explore space, try the empty void between Cynthia Tucker’s ears. I don’t think even Mr. Spock could find an ounce of logic in there. Millions have tried, all have failed.


January 28th, 2011
11:33 am

Daniel Henninger: “High-speed rail and solar shingles? If that’s the president’s idea of meeting our Sputnik moment, then Houston, we have a problem.

Personally, I suspect that this is more of an ideological divide than a generational one. But if somebody has difficulty getting inspired by the early space program, and specifically the effect that Sputnik had on our morale, then there are an abundance of great movies, books, and documentaries to inform us. For fun, check out the movie “October Sky,” a true story that is impossible not to love. “The Right Stuff” is also a great movie about the Apollo program. You don’t have to have been alive and old enough to remember that time to be inspired by it.

With regard to high-speed rail and solar shingles, Kyle had a great post about the uprisings happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Of course, if such uprisings take hold and spread throughout the middle east, we’re likely to see oil prices rise again, our standards of living diminished, and we arrive at a place that was predicted if we didn’t break our addiction to oil soon (no, the U.S. does not have enough oil to sustain us–even if we “drill, baby, drill.”) If you’re not inspired by the Apollo program, there are plenty of other reasons to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Incidentally, I thought the president had a great idea in his State of the Union when he suggested that we end subsidies to oil companies. Welfare for the wealthy is an excellent place to reduce spending and has the side benefit of leveling the playing field such that cleaner energies can compete.

quick work break

January 28th, 2011
11:38 am

NASA has been a money-suck for decades. It’s nice to be nostalgic, but that tends to stifle innovation. Popular Science had a great central article a few months ago on current NASA projects vs. private/civilian projects and soundly determined the latter more cost effective and innovative. Obama’s proposals sure aren’t as sexy as going into space. But I think we’re just trying to survive here in this increasingly competititive world. Energy technology is one of the last chances we’ve got at surviving. Just not sure America can see that far, though.


January 28th, 2011
11:44 am

Great article Kyle,
There are a handful of events that I will always recall where I was, what I was doing and the feeling that it stirred in me. That was surely one.
By the way ~ congratulations on the editorial in Real Clear Politics!

Grob Hahn

January 28th, 2011
11:47 am

I agree with you that Challenger affected the space program terribly. But so did the purely political decision to let Skylab falter. If not for public sector outcry we would not continue to have the Hubble. In fact, the space race has been heating up again and for the last several years. But it’s not the huge, waste-everything-but-time government leading the way, it’s the private sector. Companies like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace and Blue Origin are using lean business models and 6-Sigma to produce better vehicles for less money. Space tourism is finally a reality, but at $200K or more for a ticket it’s hard to justify for most. I suspect the private sector will lead the way there as well.

But consider that the biggest drain on our space program was having funds diverted incrementally while the money to support “social” programs blossomed. It’s likely we would already have people on Mars if we hadn’t squandered so much on Welfare, the War on Drugs and the Arms Race. Consider that Skylab research advanced crop sciences by about a century, using 70s technology. If we had continued along those lines there is no telling what kinds of beneficial spin-off programs would have resulted (like the personal computer age we have all married to by now).

Personally, I’m excited all over again and I used to watch Apollo launches as a kid.


January 28th, 2011
11:51 am

NASA has gotten to political to accomplish anything now!


January 28th, 2011
11:58 am

Hey Kyle…Wasn’t it Bush who stated we need to go back to the moon, or Mars ??????

Kyle has the thrill of ” WAR ” subsided for Republican as of Yet ?

Or do we go to war in other parts of the world for OIL ?


January 28th, 2011
11:58 am

Joe the Plutocrat – “can you say Morton-Thyokall and/or Rockwell? how about “shoddy O rings”?”

Joe, I grew up in Brigham City Utah, 30 miles from Promontory where Thiokol was based. My father was Program Director of the Tactical Division, and very good friends with the engineers involved with the making of the SRB’s. I personally know all the principles involved from Jerry Mason and Joe Kilminster to Al Mcdonald the head of the Shuttle program and his team consisting of Roger Boisjoly, Robert Eberling and Bob Lund. The disaster was caused (as most disasters are)by the refusal of management at both Thiokol and NASA to listen to the design team and adhere to their warnings. All the way up to the morning of the launch, Bob, Robert and Roger were pleading with officials not to send the shuttle up. On the ground in Florida, Al specifically advised NASA that a launch could have catastrophic consequences. It was on the advice of 2 managers, Jerry Mason and Joe Kilminster that the launch go ahead as scheduled. The rest is history. The O-Rings did have flaws, that were identified and corrected early on. The SRB’s were basically Titan missles that my father helped design. The equipment was sound if used properly and if the reccomendations of the engineers was followed. However, no amount of knowledge, experience or facts will ever over rule the wise and powerful “management” decision. Obviously, the rest was history.


January 28th, 2011
12:12 pm

Aww I don’t feel like fussin’ today. Just a few questions: (Intersting thoughts here, Kyle.)

Why can’t we develop intercity & state rocket transportation? I, in Atlanta,could have lunch with my sister in Charlotte and be home in time for a siesta. (not too serious here)

Second question: Why can liberals buy their liquor on Saturday instead of waiting for Sunday? Is that too much of a mental problem to overcome? Seems to be. (sorta serious here)

Third question: Why can’t Obama realize investments and spending are synonymous ? That the American deficit will soon put this country into hospice? The Chinese are already planning flowers and sympathy cards. (seriously serious here)

Well, let me rocket off to lunch with Dr. Spock. Ha! (only serious here about lunch)

Sister Sarah

January 28th, 2011
12:24 pm

What we have here is yet ANOTHER example of BIG GOVERNMENT trying to force this rocket thingy down our throats. It’s no secret that Obama wants to scrap the space program because he doesn’t see America as EXCEPTIONAL. He doesn’t believe that we are just as good as the COMMUNIST SOVIET UNION just because they beat us with that whole Sputnik thingy back in the 50’s.

If he followed the teachings of RONALD REAGAN (like I do **wink**), he would know that if he just sticks this thing out say.. another 30 or 40 years we can bankrupt those those old commies again. Boy was that Reagan a smart man! You betcha!


January 28th, 2011
12:27 pm

Find a new frontier: pretty simple, Kyle. Alternative fuels to replace the dirty coal and oil we depend upon (and fund petro-dictators with). Fast, reliable and safe transportation on the ground like Europe and Asia. An F-150, or its equivalent, that will get 75 miles per gallon or more in two years. The fuel that powered the industrial revolution is no longer satisfactory. It’s time to move to a new plateau.

We have the finest technology schools on the planet. Put them to work on these with the funding to match the task and ask them to do it in five years. To say we can’t, as Americans, do this is to slap our intelligence and ingenuity in the face. Get the politicians off the dirty fuel dole and it will happen.

That is the new frontier. If you can’t get excited about that then there is not much you can do for America.

Get er done

January 28th, 2011
12:30 pm

I was wathching that there left leaning commie PBS Network and they had a program on the Panama Canal. That there program said Old Teddy Roosevelt spent a lot of the Federal Budget and got er done in 10 years when other countries had failed. How dare that Moslim challenge Amricans to be forward thinking and plan for the future! We need to reign him and folks like Roosevelt in!

Joe the Plutocrat

January 28th, 2011
12:33 pm

Fletch, I used “shoddy O rings” fscetiously (as in how the engineers were thrown under the bus). it is well documented tha many of the engineers (NASA and private sector) advised against the launch, but as you point out, some of the “higher-ups” (as possibly “high up” as the White House) placed political agenda over safety/science.


January 28th, 2011
12:39 pm

The Administration is attempting to get this nation of fossil fuels, a new frontier if u will. But u deranged conservativs


January 28th, 2011
12:41 pm

….you deranged conservatives howl about socialism, and how big oil she continue to get government subsidies while they roll in record profits. If that isn’t socialism, nothing is.


January 28th, 2011
12:41 pm

Joe The Plutocrat – “Fletch, I used “shoddy O rings” fscetiously (as in how the engineers were thrown under the bus)”

Thanks Joe.


January 28th, 2011
12:45 pm

I was 11 and living in a blue state when the Challenger blew up. Your description of it rings true for Generation X’ers. But, unlike you I do think Obama picked the right cause for our Sputnik moment. We are shifting from a world ruled by one or two superpowers to a multi-polar world where there are a dozen or so major powers and the playing field is leveling — all things that Free Trade is designed to bring about.

For America’s welfare to remain strong, it must stay competitive. Having and executing a strategic plan for our energy future that (1) ends our dependence on the limited supply of fossil fuels on this earth that happen to exist in the most volitale and hostile political jurisdictions on this Earth and (2) mitigates the causes and impact of global climate change that will destabilize this world and do great harm to mankind’s ability to continue its existence are the challenges of our time.

If only they were as easy as sending a man to the moon and beating out one competitor to do so first.


January 28th, 2011
1:01 pm

This is the perfect example of Wingnut’s skewed view of the world. He looks thru the eyes of a thirty something old, with no appreciation of history. I don’t know how he became Spokesman for people my age? I didn’t see the moon landing, but had a poster of it on my wall as a child. I would love to look at it and it made me proud to be an American.

gaetano marano

January 28th, 2011
1:02 pm

don’t kill another Shuttle crew!!!!!!!!
the ET cracks might very likely cause a, never seen before, huge ET foam debris that may destroy the Shuttle before it reaches the orbit!!!!!!
about 15 months ago I’ve proposed the DEFINITIVE solution for the Shuttle ET’s foam issue in this article:
“The idea that can save SEVEN astronauts” …
maybe, NASA can use MY idea NOW, for the Discovery STS-133 mission and the latest flights, to avoid a further Challenger or Columbia disaster
there’s still over a month to fix the ET issue and save the Discovery crew!


January 28th, 2011
1:04 pm

Kyle what are you saying……. we need more space exploration ?????


January 28th, 2011
1:10 pm

Why don’t we have a lottery to revive the space program? That way all the poor suckers that fork over their paychecks every week at the Quicky Mart can pay for it. You know, the way they pay for the education of all the white middle-class kids here in Georgia.

Kyle Wingfield

January 28th, 2011
1:15 pm

Intown: When I clicked your link — as I try to do for all links posted in comments — our own corporate web filter warned me about going to the site. I’ve never gotten such a message before, so I’m assuming the site is so bad that a link to it doesn’t need to appear on my blog. I’ve taken down that comment.

I realize that you were linking to the site as an example of things you disagreed with, but I’m afraid the answer is the same either way.

stands for decibels

January 28th, 2011
1:23 pm

Good piece. I think I’ll read some of it to my elementary-school-age child, who had been asking me about the Challenger disaster just the other day; we watched the video together.

stands for decibels

January 28th, 2011
1:24 pm

Oh, and Kyle, as an Obama supporter (and closer to his age than yours), I find your criticisms of his SOTU rhetoric here entirely constructive.


January 28th, 2011
1:39 pm

I was 17years old in the 11th grade when Challenger exploded, and it was very sad. T I remember when the maiden shuttle enterprise was launched. In 1979, Space Shuttle Enterprise, mounted on top of a specially-modified 747, stopped overnight in Atlanta for refueling and cargo checks. We parked along the airport loop road and was able to watch it on the runways. Alas, the good times!

Junior Samples

January 28th, 2011
1:53 pm

Spoiled brats.
So if we fail at something, we should never attempt it again Kyle?

We remember where we were when Apollo 11 landed. We also remember the failed attempts as well. Afterall, this IS rocket science. It’s suppose to be hard. Failures have consequences.

I guess Kyle thinks if something is hard, forget it. Stop trying.

Ho Hum

January 28th, 2011
2:07 pm

Another partisan rant by Kyle. The entire space program is just another example of the failure of liberalism? Please. This just about as predictable as everything that Kyle writes. Liberals: evil socialists/jihadists that are trying to destroy america; while conservative are the only “real americans” who care about the country, its children and its future.

Still waiting for that critical review of GOP governors that you promised a few weeks ago Kyle. Especially the late, great Governor ‘do nothing’ Sonny Perdue. Oh wait, that wouldn’t fit your worldview like your piece slamming the democratic governors in NY and Illinois. You write for the AJC Kyle — not some national newspaper. Once you get north of Cherokee County, you can’t even buy the AJC. Talk about a shrinking readership. I bet nobody in Illinois or New York cares what some right-wing conservative from the suburbs in Georgia has to say.

How about writing about Georgia? Wait, I’ll do that for you: MARTA, Atlanta, Georgia democrats and everything inside 285 is bad, evil, racist and socialist. While the Georgia GOP and everything outside of 285 is a wonderland of conservative values, truth, justice and the american way. That was easy.

I’d like to see you address why, after AJC slammed MARTA’s performance during the snowstorm (at least MARTA trains were running, unlike GDOT’s miserable failure on the interstates and state highways), did the AJC refuse to publish all of the MARTA reply to the AJC article? I know your conservative sheeples believe that everything about MARTA is bad — but why are you afraid to publish a contrary view?

stands for decibels

January 28th, 2011
2:27 pm

The entire space program is just another example of the failure of liberalism?

Ok, maybe I’m missing some double-secret layer of sarcasm, not being a regular here, but I’ll ask you the same thing I ask some of the righties who put words in Jay Bookman’s mouth—where on earth did Kyle say such a thing, above?


January 28th, 2011
2:43 pm

“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″ – Allegedly :) .


January 28th, 2011
2:48 pm

Americans do need frontiers. I remember when my son, now 40, was about 3, and we let him sit up and watch every launch. We painted his room with spacecraft murals. He became an artist for George Lucas, doing StarWars art. He had aspirations born of the space program. He wasn’t into technology or science, but he was into the dream of space travel and exploration. What are our children supposed to strive for? Why should they work hard in school when we have no industry and all they can aspire to is service worker status? Taking the inspiration to do better out of our papers for political correctness sake, and lowering our goals as a nation has created a nation full of people content with their own mediocrity.


January 28th, 2011
2:52 pm

Good article Kyle — laced with a lot of “that dang Obama!!” comments/fallacies; but other than that, a good article. Now if only you could write…….. say 347 more articles like the one above for the rest of the year……… :)

Class of '98

January 28th, 2011
3:04 pm

Excellent column, Kyle. I am 35 and you summed up my feelings about this very nicely.


January 28th, 2011
3:25 pm

What @wallbanger said at 2:48……cuz I am just too swamped today to write anything more than that. Cheers, y’all.


January 28th, 2011
3:31 pm

Good article, Kyle. I too remember being home that day, a snow day in Atlanta, and watching with my young children. We were excited because there was a teacher on it. My dad a chemist made us watch every launch in our younger life and it was still exciting. Yes, our world has changed, and young people need something to be excited about again and green energy ain’t it!