The crash-landing of a childhood dream

There has never been a giant list of reasons to rise before the sun. I felt the same way as a young kid in the early ‘60s, albeit with two big exceptions: Christmas morning and the first space launches in 1961-62.

There has never been a giant list of reasons to rise before the sun. I felt the same way as a young kid in the early ‘60s, albeit with two big exceptions: Christmas morning and the first space launches in 1961-62.

My earliest vivid space race recollection was John Glenn’s ride into history as the first American to leave the clutches of Earth and circle the planet a few times. My father insisted that we witness this pivotal moment in history live, so it was an early launch from sleep for us in February 1962.

There was a long delay before the actual Mercury liftoff, but the limitless and restless energy of childhood was held in check by the event. We didn’t want to miss a thing on the TV screen, even if much of it was spent listening to Walter Cronkite ad lib his way through the sizable gap in action.

Glenn’s successful flight was the start of many space age dreams for me. Canada was a proud neighbour of our American friends and we shared a common bond of mutual pride in their monumental event.

I was hooked on the space program from that moment of that first Mercury spacecraft liftoff on the TV set and envisioned a future of endless possibilities when we rocketed from Earth into the great beyond.

The onslaught of advancing childhood years meant that I could grasp more complicated concepts about space travel.

The Gemini program was the next step and allowed two astronauts to take a ride in space.

In June 1965, Edward White was the first American to go for a stroll in space outside of the capsule. It just kept getting better and better for junior space cadets like myself.

Popular Science magazine turned a former Second World War German rocket scientist named Werner Von Braun into a rock star-like celebrity during this golden age of space travel. Von Braun had direct links to the infamous Nazi V-2 rocket program, but this information was scrubbed clean from his post-war efforts on behalf of the American space program.

To me he was simply a scientist that wrote about the space program as an insider who could make it all happen in a cosmic way. His articles in Popular Science convinced me that star ships captained by babe-hounds like Captain James T Kirk would be a real possibility in my lifetime.

The Apollo space program meant that we would finally set foot on another chunk of rock other than Earth. The scope of this achievement was not lost on me as I watched the triumph and tragedy of the Apollo program.

Lives were extinguished on the Apollo program launch pad, but nobody was willing to throw in the towel on Kennedy’s dream to land on the moon before 1970. Apollo 8’s Christmas 1968 orbit around the moon was knocking on the lunar door before they finally kicked in the door with an actual summer of ‘69 Apollo 11 lunar landing.

That huge event happened on July 20 1969, and those of us that witnessed this event on live TV will never forget it. We were on the cusp of amazing space adventures and nothing stood in our way — or so we thought at the time.

People quickly became less spellbound by the Apollo program and only re-kindled their interest when the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission nearly marooned three good men.

The lunar program ended quietly in December 1972 when the Apollo 17 mission had the boys back in time for Christmas.

After Apollo 17, the US manned mission space program was radically altered into an Earth gravity — tethered series of space stations, satellites and shuttle craft that gave us better capabilities to spy on our enemies, fix myopic telescopes and add more TV channels and phone choices. I would still take a manned Mars landing program any day of the week.

But that is not about to happen. We have grounded the shuttles and next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the last lunar joy ride.

Now the astronauts will be mere hitchhikers on Russian space Greyhound busses — and that is definitely not the vision of Werner von Braun and every kid that dreamed big space dreams along with him in the ‘60s.

It is actually a very powerful Jackie Chan kick in a highly sensitive anatomical region for space exploration and its devotees.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the manned US space program, but lately it just seems more like a sad crash landing with great cell phone coverage.