(c) Marianne Plumridge, 1 February 2003
I am a child of the 1960s. Born into that turbulent decade which oversaw so many changes in the world. War, peace, civic awareness, the awakening of racial issues, the cold war, burgeoning freedoms on many levels, and personal freedoms formerly restrained by the overworked images of the previous decade: the American Dream; the perfect society; the unquestioning roles formed for us by government and church. Into all this turmoil though, came an idea whose seed was planted in the closing years of World War II: spaceflight. It started out as a whisper, and became a dream. The ‘what if we could put a man in space?’ became ‘what if we could put a man on the moon?’ Despite the personal troubles of the ‘everyman/woman’ around the globe, the world watched in awe and joy as humankind achieved its ultimate goal: flying a person to, and landing on, another cosmic body across the void of space vacuum, and then safely returning him home.
What happened to that dream?
The ‘everyman/woman’ got bored. They could not see where this ‘space travel’ would take them. After all, only a chosen few could go into space, and that didn’t include them or even their children. And NASA’s careful, methodical machinations for each flight, did little to ease the restlessness of an increasingly ‘instant gratification’ propelled populace. The funds spent on this expensive experiment were brought into question. The populace required that more important things closer to home, like health care, education, social issues, be addressed and the ‘wasted’ funds for the space program be redirected to them.
So it was, that following the near tragedy of Apollo 13, the Apollo space program was cancelled after only a few more flights. NASA concentrated the ensuing years of the 1970s into developing a reusable spacecraft: the Space Transportation System (STS), commonly called the ‘space shuttle’.
Whatever dreams still held by the few who still wanted to go into space, whose childhood heroes were astronauts instead of a transient celebrity, were redirected to the space shuttle. It would be several more years however before those dreamers realised that the shuttle was only ever going to be used for low-Earth-orbit flights, that we weren’t going back to the Moon, or any other planet, any time soon. But the space shuttle was an answer in itself. It wasn’t Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, although the test model was christened that, and it wasn’t the elegant pointy rocket ship that filled the pulps and movies in the past, but it was close. Sleek, white, majestic, powerful: it shone brilliantly in the Florida morning sunshine and it was ‘real’. To some, it must have felt like we were on the very verge of ‘going out there’.
Those children eventually grew up to become the normal, everyday ‘Joe’ or ‘Jane’ whose attention was now held by the day-to-day matters of a job, marriage, children, etcetera, while the space program learned to ‘walk’ using the space shuttle, following the 1960s headlong desperate ‘run’ to the Moon. An admirable trait really: learn what you need to know first before any more lives are lost or put at risk, and make it more inexpensive if you can. Learn to walk before you run.
Over the years, the shuttle flights seemed to lose their mysticism and most of us just followed them with half an eye or ear. We’d grown complacent yet again because lifestyles were becoming more complicated and technology more commonplace. I continued my life: joining the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at seventeen so I could be part of the future in some small way. Life in an enclosed community in the coalfields north of my native Newcastle, NSW, wasn’t really going to do it for me, so I joined up. Learning and growing came next. Throughout it all, I continued to write my stories and poems, and start developing my artwork, and to dream.
One day in 1985, I wrote a line of words on a blank page in the middle of an almost empty exercise book, and then promptly forgot about it. In January of 1986, I went looking for some notes and found that line again. Everything else was forgotten while I gazed at that page: something in those words ‘spoke’ to me. For the next five days I feverishly worked that opening line into a four-stanza poem. On the last night, I copied the poem out onto a fresh sheet of paper, dedicated it to all the men and women who would inevitably lose their lives in our pursuance of life in space, then popped the sheet into an envelope and addressed it, sealed it and put a stamp on it - ready go out in the morning mail at work to a fanzine editor. Feeling pretty satisfied with my creative output, I went to bed. I awoke the next morning to the radio alarm blaring the news: ‘Shuttle Lost’. It was the 29th January 1986 (In America, it was still the 28th) and the space shuttle Challenger had exploded just after liftoff. My world reeled, and I looked at that sealed envelope in horror. The poem I had written was about space, and I had called it ‘Shipwreck’.
Like most, my days following the Challenger disaster were ones of shock. Endless questions arose over it, with one being topmost on everyone’s lips: “How could this happen?” Everyone assumed that because the flights seem effortless, NASA had somehow overcome all the problems from the past. The world found out that this wasn’t so. The erroneous thought was a mistake on the part of the public, not on NASA’s. Complacency had hit home again. We mourned. Found out what went wrong, fixed it, and moved on. But we never forgot. Those of us who dreamed for a better future for the human race never forgot.
The shuttle began to fly again in 1989.
It’s now the New Year in 2003. I have recently been corresponding with someone in the astronaut office at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. My husband and I promised that we’d find a teeny, tiny Godzilla figure for a member of the crew, who was a big fan, on an upcoming flight. The box we sent was acknowledged received late in the month. We exchanged emails a few times, and I shared some memories from 1986 about the Challenger. I also sent a copy of my prophetic poem, or thought I had. The piece I forwarded was the wrong one: it was one I’d written about the exhilaration of flight, called ‘Pilot’. It was a poem of freedom and hope, and thinking it was appropriate to a new year filled with new promise, I didn’t send the other. The circumstance got me to thinking though, about ‘Shipwreck’ until I was reciting it in the shower of a morning. In the end, I typed it up, along with a new dedication to the Challenger crew, and sent it the editor of our monthly newsletter for the Rhode Island Science Fiction Club. My tag line on the letter was “it seems appropriate, somehow.”
My husband and I woke this morning to the news regarding the space shuttle Columbia. After a sixteen-day flight, the shuttle re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on the return journey and exploded 200,000 feet above Dallas, Texas. The debris fell to earth in devastating finality. All aboard were killed. Another shuttle had been lost 17 years, almost to the day, after Challenger. The newsletter with my poem, ‘Shipwreck’, is issued today, and I am devastated.
The world around us is seething with massive threat and the impending war in the Middle East. People are scared. I am older now and the RAAF is many years behind me. The shock I felt along with so many others back in 1986 for the Challenger isn’t as intense with this current tragedy – even though I am still moved to tears. My husband points out that the horrific events of September 11, 2001, a scant 140 miles away, and more recent events have immured people against more tragedy. Perhaps too, back in 1986, my contemporaries and I were young and had many aspirations and hopes still before us. Losing Challenger back then was the first blow to the trek toward space within our generation, and probably the harder to bear.
How did it come to this?
Within hours of Columbia’s demise, I heard a television interview with former Apollo astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. I was disgusted and disbelieving when the anchorman asked Mr Aldrin if he “believed that the monies spent on the space program could be put to better use elsewhere, like healthcare and education and the economic crisis”. I couldn’t believe my ears. The self same argument that got the Apollo program cancelled nearly thirty years ago was being trotted out for inspection. Contrary to popular belief, the education system, healthcare and the economy didn’t visibly benefit back when Apollo was closed down – the money was just shuttled into other political agendas because narrow-minded officials couldn’t see past having won the race to the Moon. “Why should we continue? We beat the Russians.” As if that ended the argument. The opening up of the space program and other related industries like mineral and ore testing within our solar system would have brought many benefits back home to Earth. Not only that, but give the youth of all countries a goal to aim for: something higher to aspire to – together. The youth of today seems aimless as the world gets smaller every day and the choices of career and life become narrower. The opportunities for work and career in future space industries would be boundless. Also, the Russian space program hums with activity and successes with even less of a budget than that of its American counterpart. And the Russian economy is on a much worse footing than the US. Perhaps because the struggle is all the harder for them, the vision and opportunities of space are more clear. If America ever decided to abandon their program for space exploration, other countries would continue to leap forward. Air, or space, superiority would no longer be the domain of the United States of America. The people who lack vision and who suggest that America “should forget all this foolishness” must needs remember this. I don’t think I’ve met an American citizen yet, who liked to be classed as an ‘also ran’.
However, don’t despair. Shuttle Columbia is a tragic loss, but the American space program will endure: perhaps even stronger than before. The space societies of many countries of the world have been working in peaceful partnership for the last decade to go into space together. If only the troubled few would follow suit and raise their faces to the stars. We live in hope.
This hope will endure amidst the pages of the speculative writings of many authors, and the fantastical illustrations and paintings of artists who keep the trek toward space in focus for the rest of us who look up. They share the dream and will continue to inspire us.
As for the crews who crossed over without ever touching earth again, they are already home.
Apollo 1 - Challenger – Columbia
Per ardua, Ad astra
(Through adversity to the Stars)
Lest We Forget
Once, upon a silent ship,
no sound of tread was heard.
life no longer strayed there,
through corridors obscured.
Past, upon this gloried ship,
a loyal crew once served.
Alive in pride and harmony
til tragedy occurred.
Struck a mortal blow without,
the valiant ship defied
the engulfing forces, crushing,
and in the darkness, died.
Nigh, ajar to starry space,
the static wreck appears,
a ghostly apparition
observed throughout the years.
I have sought to sail an open sky
across the arc of blue
and harness the forces
which drive my craft
and bend them to my will.
I would soar the path of eagles
and shoot up far beyond
- till the starkness of the sun
would burn its fiery image
in the corners of my mind.
Or set a course in the ebb of night
on a tangent to a star
and skim the rim
of its bewitching light
and follow it’s path afar.
I've reposted this essay because this week it is relevant. The 20th July 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of mankind walking on the Moon in 1969. I watched it, I saw, I believed...
Jim, this is for you because you asked me to...
Hugs all 'round,