Keep America in Space

The morning of June 3, 1965, up early while the rest of the family slept, I was squatting on the kitchen floor with a tape recorder and listening intently to the radio as Ed White clambered out of the Gemini IV capsule to begin America’s first spacewalk. It was a moment of anticipation, excitement and fear.

Floating free of the capsule more than 100 miles above the planet, White was supposed to stay outdoors for 10 minutes, demonstrating the workings of a handheld, gas-powered maneuvering device. After a while White seemed oblivious to flight director Chris Craft and his fellow Gemini 4 astronaut, Jim McDivitt, telling him to go back inside. He was thrilled with the view and prolonged the walk. When he finally complied after 20 minutes, he said it was the saddest moment of his life.

[Ed White on America’s first spacewalk, June 3, 1965. NASA photo]

We lived on the American missile base at Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, and my senior year of high school was nearly over. For years, many of my friends and I had felt isolated, but on those special occasions when our local Armed Force Radio Service station connected with a live event back in the United States, or in space, we felt part of the larger world. It was thrilling.

Skip ahead nearly two years. On Jan. 27, 1967, White and fellow astronauts Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee were practicing for a moon landing. They were aboard an Apollo command module on the launch pad for the simulation, on top of a Saturn rocket that was not fueled. The command module was filled with pure oxygen. Suddenly a bundle of wires short-circuited and the capsule interior burst into flame. Within 30 seconds the astronauts died of smoke inhalation and burns.

The tragedy sickened all of us who cared about them and the space program. But I thought fatalities were inevitable along the way toward becoming a space-faring civilization. As terrible as it was, I felt America had to come to grips with the loss, quickly retrofit the Apollo capsule so it no longer pumped pure oxygen, and press on.

I commented in a column in the University of Utah student paper, the Daily Utah Chronicle (April 27, 1967), “We are on the threshold of man’s greatest adventure. The peaceful exploration and colonization of the nearest planets – and eventually extra-solar-system planets – may well be man’s last real hope of survival.

“Just as it would have been impossible for a bunch of seasick Pilgrims just out of port to predict the eventual growth of Democracy and Detroit, superhighways and Salt Lake City, so it is impossible for me or anyone else to accurately forecast the eventual returns of our primitive space program. All the Pilgrims knew, all I know, is that there is a wonderful second chance somewhere across the horizon. We must go on.”

The latest news about human space exploration is that the Obama administration intends to cancel the Constellation program, which would have used the Ares I crew-carrying rocket and the Ares V cargo ship to return Americans to the moon by 2020, and to venture beyond. Ares, of course, is the Greek name for Mars.

Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle fleet is phasing out. There is no other American program to put people into space.

It is unbelievable, but reliable news agencies insist it’s true that the proposed federal budget kills Constellation. The United States government is dismantling its human spaceflight capability. Instead, America is to rely on Russian launches to the International Space Station and – the planners hope – private contractors.

Don’t bet on it. The privatization of human space exploration is a pipe dream even less substantial than the notion that mercenary armies under contract can adequately fight America’s wars. As proven by more than 60 years of sacrifice, research and development, there is no substitute for heavy funding to get rockets off the ground. That means government expenditure supported by millions of taxpayers, and it means the daring of individuals willing to risk their lives for America’s sake.

Those brave people aren’t limited to Grissom, Chaffee and White.

The Astronaut Memorial Foundation, located HERE honors those who died taking America into space. Bearing the NASA logo, it remembers:

Pilots Theodore C. Freeman (Oct. 31, 1964), Charles A. Bassett II and Elliot M. See Jr. (Feb. 28, 1966), Clifton C. Williams Jr. (Oct. 5, 1967), Michael J. Adams (Nov. 15, 1967), Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (Dec. 8, 1967); Manly L. “Sonny” Carter Jr., who died in a commercial aircraft accident (April 5, 1991); Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee of the Apollo program (Jan. 27, 1967); Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and S. Christa McAuliffe of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (Jan. 28, 1986), and the astronauts killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, Daivd M. Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon (Feb. 1, 2003).

Americans, a citizen of India, an Israeli; civilians and military personnel; killed in spacecraft or during practice, while training or in test aircraft or while flying on official NASA business, these men and women gave their lives for a goal that meant something to them and to all Americans: the human exploration of space.

For the United States to cop out of the program now, after these lives were lost and so many billions of dollars were spent, would be a betrayal.

Congress must not let it happen.

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