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Bill Maxwell

The joys and benefits of American space travel

You can call this my outer space lamentation.

The space shuttle Discovery soon will make its final voyage. The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off on Feb. 27, ending the shuttle program that began in 1970 at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

I am not alone in feeling this loss. Each time I go to Cape Canaveral or to a nearby beach to witness a liftoff, thousands of other people from around the world are there. Many of them also are lamenting the demise of the shuttle program.

My interest in space started when I read From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, as a child. I really got hooked on space travel on a night in October 1957, when I walked into our front yard and watched a tiny, lighted cylinder cross the sky. It was Russia's Sputnik.

Then, along with millions of other Americans, I listened to President John F. Kennedy's inspiring speech, at Rice University, on America's mission to explore space. "Well, space is there," he said, "and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

Over the years, I have witnessed at least 30 liftoffs as a journalist on assignment and on my own as a space junkie. I was at the Cape with my 11th grade classmates on Feb. 20, 1962, when John Glenn blasted off in Friendship 7 to orbit the Earth. We watched from a site reserved for schoolchildren. NASA already had learned how to excite and inspire kids. After that day, I was hooked on spaceships and space flight. And I was at the Cape in October 1998 when at age 77, Glenn flew into space again, this time on Discovery.

Space exploration, especially manned exploration, has been good for the United States. I vividly recall Walter Cronkite's choked voice on July 20, 1969, as he reported mankind's first landing on the moon. The world was captivated. Later, Cronkite would be identified with the greatest intangible contribution of NASA's accomplishments during the 1960s.

"The space program was a major factor in maintaining some balance of what our country was all about," he said. "That period was the most traumatic decade this country had since the Civil War. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War. ... The country was splitting apart. The great thing about the space program in those days was (that) it kept us dreaming about the future, which had a very salutary effect in maintaining national sanity."

On the tangible side, the space program has provided tens of thousands of jobs for highly skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled Americans. Florida, especially the Space Coast, has benefited from the program by enjoying millions of tourist dollars.

And there have been what NASA refers to as "spinoffs" and "technology transfers." According to the agency's annual journal, more than 1,650 NASA technologies have benefited U.S. industry and science and improved quality of life. In fact, NASA's charter requires the agency to share its technologies with the public, mandating that the time and money invested in space must also return to Earth as tangible benefits.

I can't list all of the spinoffs and transfers, but here is how Peter Salgo, a physician, the host of PBS's Second Opinion and a professor at Columbia University, describes his daily contact with some of the spin-offs: "Today, I work in a large metropolitan hospital. I see NASA technology all around me. The digital image processing software, the chemical method that eliminates toxins from used dialysis fluid, intensive care unit monitoring systems, physical therapy equipment — all spinoffs from the great adventure."

Discovery is scheduled to lift off at 12:53 p.m. on Monday. I'm already having a hard time believing that we'll never see this incredible spaceship fly again.

The joys and benefits of American space travel 11/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 8:12pm]

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