This morning television news channels have been following the space shuttle as it makes its final trip from Florida to Washington D.C. Friends in D.C. tell me they could watch it come in.
It’s not a huge news story, but the arrival of the shuttle seems to be one of those pivotal moments; a metaphor for the state of our country right now. Perhaps younger people who have grown up with space flights and don’t remember a time before them are accustomed to it. They probably don’t realize that NASA and our space exploration was like a jewel in our crown. When John F. Kennedy vowed we’d be the first nation to put a man on the moon, it captured the American imagination. He was telegraphing that our nation was so great, it could do the unthinkable. It could reach for the stars – literally. The U.S. had conquered territory and tamed the West in ways our ancestors only dreamed of. We then went on to defeat other nations in the two pivotal wars of the 20th century. We were conquering diseases and building engineering wonders. We invented products that enriched every life. We expanded our culture to every part of the globe. Even in remote places people watched our television shows, hummed our music, copied our dances.
Other countries dreamed of our freedoms, of our wealth, of our optimism. Of being us.
Presidents from Johnson through Bush put NASA as a top priority. When George W. Bush talked about increasing NASA during a state of the union message, he raised the ire of some conservatives. It was seen as too much of an expenditure, and that before the later economic debacle. That loss of feeling in the American public signaled a very bad trend for the nation.
I think he was more right than the Right knew.
Now we have a commander in chief who doesn’t want to command NASA or any other patriotic endeavor. He spoke of hope and change, but extinguished hope and is bringing about the wrong change. It seems a great loss. We have a public that doesn’t feel good about its country. A public that feels we’re on the wrong trajectory. A nation most feel is in free fall from the super power status it once enjoyed.
Like the shuttle, it seems that the days of American exceptionalism are over. They are being taken to a storage facility and closed. From time to time people will want to see the shuttle and remember what it did. Is that the fate of the U.S.? Will we be just a chapter in the history books? Does it have to happen?