Happy 60th Birthday, NASA – lookin’ spry!
It all started on July 29th, 1958. Which I’m sure had NO relation to the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, a year earlier. Nah, strictly coincidence…
But that’s how we get things done in government: something threatening occurs, which spurs attention, legislation and action. And in this case, military application notwithstanding, it fostered a whole new space agency, which brought sci-fi visions into a closer focus than ever before, in a relentless and sometimes panic-stricken march towards achievement and global parity.
At the time, the US was a deer in the headlights. Khrushchev was one scary dude, threatening nuclear war and banging his shoe on a lectern to be sure he had everyone’s attention. Sputnik was a magical feat, fascinating to schoolkids and scientists, terrifying to government and military brass. The Russians were gonna kick our ass from space. NG.
What followed was a frantic and incredibly exciting pedal-to-the-metal series of developments and events that captivated the nation and the world. First came a series of launches of satellites, proving that we, too, could loft stuff into space. Sometimes. The big difference between the American and Soviet media at the time was that they only published successes and we published successes and failures. And when we failed, hoo-boy, rockets went careening clumsily into geek-spins and then unfortunate encounters with mother earth immediately thereafter. Interestingly, it became something of a prideful phenomenon to trumpet our failures, right alongside of our successes – and a new wrinkle in the American democracy propaganda the world witnessed.
By the time of the first launch of an actual human into space, we were rabid for the moment. Alan Shepard, decked out in this super cool silver space suit and helmet, carrying his own air conditioning system. Oh man, everything came to a halt as they counted down his launch. The first astronaut’s wife in the control room, bravely looking on. The first all-media, ear to the radio, shut the factory-schools-corporate office down and just freakin’ PRAY this goes OK American Space Moment.
And then the rocket screamed up into the sky and gave Shepard a 15 minute ride that brought him back the world’s greatest hero -- like, ever -- for just sitting in the thing and not screaming Mama. It was that big, it was that important and it opened the flood-gates.
Fast-forward 50 years and rich adventurers were putting down quarter-mil deposits on 15-minute passenger rides via Virgin Galactic’s new Disney-esque ride. Except this time, you wouldn’t have to bring yer own AC. Ostensibly. We’ll see where it takes us and how much the media loves THAT moment…