At 11:29 (EST) this morning, the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off to begin America's last manned space mission. Both thrilling and sad at the same time. I'm old enough to remember when there was no space program.
Back in the 1950's the popular magazines were full of articles about how we would conquer space. Moon rockets and space stations that looked like giant wheels, spinning so they could create artificial gravity in the void of space. Science fiction movies, like "Destination Moon," made it look easy. Captured German engineers, including Werner Von Braun, helped to guide our first stumbling steps. But basically, it was: how high can you get that rocket before it falls back down?
And here's what I remember. I can remember when the Russians launched Sputnik, a primitive satellite, but still the first man-made object to circle the Earth. It sent out a beeping signal and you could see it with binoculars if you knew exactly where to look, and when. I saw a Sputnik at a Russian exhibit at the Coliseum in New York in 1959. It looked like a silvery basketball with whip antennas.
I remember being on the deck of the USS General J. C. Breckinridge in August of 1964, on my way to Korea. It was very dark and the sky was clear. If you looked in the right direction, you could see the Echo satellite with the naked eye. The satellite was actually a giant balloon, 100 feet in diameter, with a shiny coating of silvery metal. It was meant to reflect signals rather than transmit them.
And I remember flying down to Kennedy Space Center in July of 1969 to watch the liftoff of Apollo 11, carrying the first men to walk on the moon. I was in the main gallery, near the Vehicle Assembly Building, near the Vice President and Walter Cronkite in his little CBS booth.
And I remember the first Space Shuttle flights, and the launching of the Hubble Telescope -- at first a failure, then a success after s shuttle mission to repair it.
And I remember all of the astronauts who lost their lives, in a reminder that this can be a very dangerous undertaking.
The American space program, from its fledgling beginnings, to Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon, to the shuttle program, with its many accomplishments, is a tribute to the capabilities of America, something to be proud of.
Right now, America has no next step for man in space. The Russians will continue to take American passengers, and private corporations are also making their bid to enter the game.
But for now, it's the end of an era.