Ever since attending Alan Shepard Elementary School, I’ve been fascinated by space and those who explore it.
Shepard was the first American to leave Earth’s atmosphere and my small school (home of the Rockets) in Bourbonnais, Illinois, was named after him. Shepard, a naval officer, blazed a trail alongside John Glenn, a Marine, fellow test pilot, and first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.
Shepard died in 1998. Glenn died last week at 95. Along with serving in the military and for NASA, Glenn was an Ohio U.S. senator from 1974 though 1999. While still in the Senate, he became the oldest person to go into space when he boarded the Discovery shuttle at age 77.
Today, American astronauts mostly serve in anonymity. Instead, we know more about NASA’s technological feats, such as landing the Curiosity rover on Mars and transmitting photos of dying stars from the Hubble Space Telescope. Another telescope, James Webb, is scheduled to launch in 2018. It cost $8.8 billion, has been in the works for more than 20 years, and will be the most powerful space telescope ever built.
It’s unclear when another man or woman will travel as far, or farther, than Americans did between 1969 and 1972 when a dozen astronauts, including Shepard and Glenn, walked on the moon.
Since the NASA Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, the Orion spacecraft has been under development and several private entities have filled the void, such as SpaceX, which in 2012 became the first private spacecraft to berth with the International Space Station.
Earlier this year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that he not only wants to go to Mars, but colonize it as well. The trip will take just over three months and cost about $200,000 per person. First, he hopes to launch a capsule to its surface in 2018. He acknowledges that the colonization of the Red Planet remains decades away.
What’s the point of spending so much time and money to travel to an uninhabitable place? Why look for life on somewhere other than Earth?
It’s the Mars rover’s namesake: curiosity.
Glenn said it best in a 2008 interview: “Every bit of human progress, that’s ever been made, occurred because somebody was curious about doing things in a new or different or combination-with-something-else way.”
Times, indeed, have changed since astronauts like Glenn and Shepard first launched toward the stars. During the space race fueled by the Cold War with Russia, these men were considered heroes. They risked their lives for the sake of discovery and united a country with a common goal.
Lest we forget, there are still Americans in space. Scott Kelly returned home in March of this year after spending a year aboard the International Space Station orbiting the Earth alongside Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. I followed Kelly’s journey from the ground, immersed in the photographs he shared from more than 200 miles above.
Science fiction has, in many ways, overshadowed the fact that researchers and scientists in the real world are still exploring. And much of the foundation for that exploration was built by those first astronauts our parents knew by name.
They weren’t actors. And they at once showed us how much we can accomplish with a combination of grit and curiosity.
Godspeed, John Glenn.