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A Country without Dreams

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It is September the 12th, 1962; President John F. Kennedy is speaking at Rice University:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.

He speaks of new knowledge and new rights and warns us, technology has no conscience. Kennedy was both idealistic and cynical, all at the same time; here is a President who sees the future. A President fearing if we don't, someone else will. A President who is committing his nation to the peaceful exploration of outer space with the most outrageous and expensive science program, ever imagined.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The moon was Kennedy's legacy after his blood spilled out on Dallas street. We might not have gone to the moon otherwise. But as a small boy, this was my generation and my legacy too. I sat cross-legged in front of a grainy black and white television, watching as John Glenn orbited the earth. It began in the morning and was over by lunch. Just putting a man in orbit prompted a national rejoicing. The United States could do that. We could do anything; we could put a man on the moon, because as a nation, we believed that we could.

The space missions becoming longer and more complicated answering the questions that couldn't be answered with a computer or a slide ruler. Could men work in space? Could they live in space? Could two space craft rendezvous and dock in space? Each problem met and each challenge solved, one by one. Space walks, long duration flights and not just testing the men, but testing the hardware. A Gemini 8 a thruster stuck pitching the craft into an accelerating roll. Pilot Neil Armstrong, undocked the ship and maneuvered for an emergency re-entry. This was the cutting edge, if you couldn't dock, you couldn't go to the moon, if you couldn't handle an emergency, you had no business even trying.

The crew of Apollo One was performing a dry run through of the first orbital flight on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy, when a spark ignited the pure oxygen environment, killing the three astronauts before the hatch could be opened. Everything stopped! It was "go fever" corners cut for the sake of meeting Kennedy's time line. If the Apollo One fire had occurred in space, we never would have known what had happened. The program would have been halted, maybe forever. Inadvertently the death of three astronauts had saved the program. The space craft was redesigned, the wiring changed, the atmosphere inside the craft was changed. Not content just to meet the challenge of landing men on the moon, NASA accepted the challenge of starting again, of doing it better and safer than before.

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I who am I? Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obscures who it is that (more...)

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