A year to remember the glory days of NASA

It’s hard to top an anniversary of a year like 1968, a year that cast a long shadow in the wake of its Jan. 1 Tet Offensive in Vietnam followed by assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago, and a heightened level of public protest that grew out of the civil rights/anti-war/youth movement combination.

Again this year an anniversary of 1969 has begun to unfold. On July 20 it will include the half century mark involving the giant step for mankind, one that stands out among all else that happened in the 12-month time period.

It was on that day that Neil Armstrong gained a permanent status in world history as the first man to walk on the moon. His first step is still an enduring symbol. It was the culmination of the space race that began in 1957 with Sputnik, a surprise from the Soviet Union involving the launch of the world’s first space satellite.

The 1970s were filled with great moments for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, ones that a child growing up on a quiet street in the rural Midwest couldn’t help taking to heart.

It inspired many of us to learn constellations found in the sky, with the idea that we’d probably reach those places within our lifetimes. At the very least, it seemed like a manned mission to Mars was only about 20 years away.

I still remember a few of the best original “Star Trek” episodes and the original “Star Wars” was my first PG movie courtesy of permission from my parents. The line outside the Marshall Theater stretched all the way to the post office.

I watched the first launch of a space shuttle, the Columbia, from my junior high school library with classmates. Five years later, I was one of the very first in my high school to know details about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

That occurred by virtue of my deciding to go home that day for lunch, a 34-minute time stretch that I enjoyed once or twice a week. With careful timing it combined with the occasional beef jerky, salted nut roll and fruit-roll-up medley from Van’s Market for a little lunchtime variety that went beyond the cafeteria.

That particular day I ate my pre-made sandwich on my way back to school. There was a good reason, the fact that I was transfixed not by a soap opera plot but by news of the shuttle disaster.

I memorized as much I could from almost 20 minutes of breaking news. By the time lunch period was over, word had spread around the school. Having been off-campus for lunch, I was asked to share what I’d heard at the start of my afternoon class periods.

Challenger was as much a tragedy as the first moon landing was a triumph. Even so, it brought about the same kind of pride in our pioneering astronauts who dared to venture out into “the final frontier.”

I and many others who remember where they were at those historic moments felt a strong sense of disappointment when the NASA manned space program ended in 2011.

What was once mankind’s destiny had turned into a tax burden, an example of how “science for science’s sake” had to fall within 21st century cost constraints. The idea of “shooting the moon” stopped being an “impossible dream” in 1969. Other ambitious exploration concepts are still light years away in more ways than one a half century later.

If you ask a mountain climber why he or she climbs mountains, why a “through hiker” walks high ground from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail, or why someone sails a primitive boat on the open seas along the lines of Thor Heyerdahl aboard the famous Kon Tiki; the answer is likely to be simple. Pages worth of self-help thoughts about motivation, ambition, and personal fulfillment could be brought together in three short words, just by the statement “because it’s there.”

As someone who recalls the 1970s and the 1980s, I see some coincidence in how the 50th anniversary year of the moon landing corresponds to the recent death of musician James Ingram, half the duet for the 80s hit song “Somewhere Out There.” Not surprisingly, it’s led more than one or two music fans to play the song in 2019.

Although it’s not about the space program, some of the lyrics reflect the same kind of question as to whether something is “somewhere out there.” We don’t know. We can’t even say for certain that far more intelligent aliens weren’t tracking our first ventures into space and are now wondering why we’ve slowed down.

Maybe at some point there will be another catalyst like the 1960s space race, another motivation to reach a greater milestone. Maybe it will coincide with the moon landing centennial. Only time will tell.