By Kevin Shannahan
“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”
Astronaut and U.S. Navy Captain Gene Cernan
It is July 20, 1969. I am 7 years old. Richard Nixon is the President of the United States. The Vietnam War is still being waged. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is well below 1,000. Computers take up whole rooms. The internet, anything on television other than over the air CBS, NBC and ABC, Wi-Fi and a host of other things we now take for granted do not exist. Our world was a different and vastly smaller place than we live in now.
On that day in 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 became the first person to walk on the moon, an incredible feat of engineering accomplished using slide rules and less computing power than can be found in the latest smart phone. A bit over three years later, in December, 1972, Eugene Cernan became the last person to walk on the moon. I was 10 years old. Forty-two years later, almost to the day after Neil Armstrong planted our nation’s flag on the moon, the space shuttle Atlantis took off for the final flight of the space shuttle program on July 8, 2011. The space shuttles now sit in museums. My granddaughter was the same age then that I was when I saw the final lunar mission.
A few weeks ago, NASA announced its new class of astronaut candidates. As one would expect, they are an impressive group of men and women. The news release had a few interesting facts about the training program they will undergo over the next few years. The astronaut candidates will have to learn Russian. They will have to train on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Those who complete the training will become astronauts. They have a sad distinction from their predecessors however. Chances are they will never ride into space on an American spacecraft.
Let that sink in for a moment. The United States of America is incapable of putting a man into space. Our nation’s flag stands on the Lunar surface. The footprints of our Apollo astronauts are on the moon. In the space of a few decades, the United States now finds itself dependent on Russian rockets to take its astronauts into space. American astronauts have their names in Cyrillic as well as Engligh on their spacesuit’s nametag. Vladimir Putin controls America’s access to space. Cape Canaveral is a shadow of what it once was, more museum than launch site. Star City on the Russian Steppes is now the gateway into space for manned missions. All of this has happened in my lifetime.
The late Captain Cernan’s quote needs an addition that would have gone without saying in his day. May that future astronaut arrive in an American spacecraft. We did it once. We can do it again.
Photo Credit: NASA.GOV