For the first time in almost nine years, Americans began a journey to space from Florida instead of Kazakhstan. SpaceX’s successful launch Saturday afternoon of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket closed the longest gap ever in human spaceflight from U.S. soil and broke a government monopoly on travel to orbit.
The long wait after the last shuttle mission in July 2011 for this day and this liftoff took me back all the way to 1981. That’s when my 10-year-old self woke up unnaturally early on a Sunday morning to watch the space shuttle Columbia roar to life, taking John Young and Bob Crippen to orbit after a more than five-year drought that followed the splashdown of the U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July of 1975.
I didn’t get to watch that launch on YouTube on a flat-panel TV–instead, it was an over-the-air CBS signal on a cathode-ray-tube set. There was also no social media; the only people I could rejoice with afterwards were my brother and my mom and dad.
But then as now, the United States had been through hard times. Not only did NASA have to sit and watch as the Soviet Union sent cosmonauts to orbit and the shuttle program’s delays dragged on, the end of the 1970s saw our country reeling from an oil crisis, an economic crisis, and the hostage crisis. The USSR felt free to invade Afghanistan and throw its weight around the rest of the world.
It was a lot for a nine-year-old boy who had only recently gotten into the habit of reading the New York Times and watching the evening news. It felt like my country kept getting kicked around.
The past year has not been like the year running up to STS-1. It’s worse. So much worse. A global pandemic has killed more than 102,000 Americans and wrecked the U.S. economy (with the inconsequential collateral damage of my being unable to cover the SpaceX launch in person as I did 2018’s Falcon Heavy launch). The president is a ignorant bigot, a pathological liar, and a magnet for the corrupt and the incompetent–NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine being a blessed exception. The streets of some American cities were on fire Friday night.
The state of American spaceflight was nowhere as bad before today as it was at the end of 1980–astronauts have kept flying to space on Russian rockets without the shuttle’s fatal vulnerabilities, and the ISS is a spacecraft big enough to see from the ground. But all the other things make today’s misery index exponentially higher.
And this time, the kid trying to make sense of the world is my daughter. I try to help her with that, but I don’t know that I’m doing that much. Could anybody?
Saturday’s launch doesn’t cure the novel coronavirus, put tens of millions of Americans back to work, vote Trump out of office or banish his brand of cruelty from American politics, bring George Floyd back to life, or excise systemic racism. But as my friend Maura Corbett put it in a tweet, this accomplishment gave “a grieving and broken country some wonder and hope today.” And it should remind everybody that hard work and a willingness to learn may ultimately take you through adversity. And to the stars.