Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Space Exploration

Yesterday the space shuttle Discovery had a successful launch. It's the first shuttle mission since the Columbia Disaster happened in 2003. I'm hoping that Discovery can make it home safely and that its astronauts return unharmed. I have always been a big supporter of the space programme, but then given that I was born in the Sixties, it would perhaps be surprising if I wasn't.

By the time I was born, the "Space Race" was well underway. The United States' space programme was largely born out of the Cold War. On October 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik I, the first man made satellite to orbit planet Earth. Fearing that the Soviets could well develop technological superiority to the U. S., the government created NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and hence the American space programme. The Space Race had begun. Indeed, it would be on May 5, 1961 that the first American would be sent into space. On that date Alan Shepherd Jr. rode Mercury Freedom 7 on a suborbital flight into space. It was not long after that historic flight that President John F. Kennedy would make the space programme a national priority for the United States. In a speech he made on May 25, 1961, Kennedy pledged that we should put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

One of the first steps towards that goal was launching the first American into orbit around the Earth. On February 20, 1962, Mercury Friendship 7 was launched, carrying John Glenn. Glenn would orbit the earth three times. It would not be long before the United States would be swept up by an absolute craze for outer space. This craze can easily be seen in the television shows of the era. Space travel, either to or from this world, played a central role in a few TV shows in the Sixties. Both My Favorite Martian and The Invaders featured aliens coming to Earth. Both Star Trek and Lost in Space dealt with space travel itself. The topic of space even appeared on many sitcoms of the era. Gilligan's Island, The Monkees, Bewitched, and many other shows had at least one episode with a space age theme. I Dream of Jeannie topped them all. Jeannie's master, Tony Nelson, was an astronaut!

Even TV commercials during the Sixties touched upon space travel in some way, shape or form. The perfect example of this was Tang, which was first used on the Gemini flights in 1965. For literally years Tang capitalised on the space programme in its advertising campaigns. Naturally, there were food products which capitilised on the space craze. Pillsbury developed "Space Food Sticks" for NASA. And as might be expected, Pillsbury made Space Food Sticks available to the general public as well. In 1965 Quaker Oats even introduced a cereal with a space age theme. The spokesman for Quisp was was an alien with a propeller atop his head, named, appropriately, Quisp.

Not surprisingly, toys with a space theme were extremely popular in the Sixties. Boys during that decade could choose from a wide array of toy ray guns, robots, spaceships, and so on. Mattel created a line of "Major Matt Mason" action figures which capitalised on the space programme. Major Matt Mason was not the only action figure with a space theme, by any means. Marx came out with its own "Johnny Apollo" line of action figures which did the same. In 1965 Gilbert came out with Moon McDare. Eldon came out with Billy Blastoff. Even a G. I. Joe action figure was issued with a space suit and space capsule!

Of course, action figures weren't the only space oriented toys around in the Sixties. Both Ideal and Remco came out with their own "space bases." Remco produced a Voice Controlled Astronaut Base, complete with rocket, astronaut vans, and so on. Ideal's Astro Base came with a scout car, astronaut figure, and so on. Ideal seems to have favoured space oriented toys. They came out with a Space Belt and Helmet set, so that kids could pretend to be astronauts. In 1968 they introduced a line of four battery powered robots called Zeroids, whose mission was the exploration of space.

Towards the end of the decade, the American space programme saw its crowning achievement. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 reached the Moon. Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on it. Unfortunately, as the Apollo missions progressed, the American public lost interest in the space programme, although it maintains many supporters to this day. Of course, even after that first lunar landing, there would still be in milestones in the American space programme. In 1973 and 1974, the Skylab missions took place. Skylab was the United States' first space station. The Skylab missions marked the most extensive amount of time American astronauts spent in space (84 days on the last mission). On April 12, 1981, Columbia became the first space shuttle launched into orbit around the earth.

While NASA has seen many successes, it has also seen its share of disasters. On January 27, 1967, a fire on the launch pad would destroy Apollo 1, killing all three astronauts on board. Apollo 13 nearly ended in disaster. Launched on Apr. 11, 1970, an oxygen tank exploded before the astronauts could even reach the moon. For a time it looked as if the astronauts might be stranded in space, but fortunately both Mission Control and the astronauts figured out a means to bring Apollo 13 home. The space shuttle has also seen its share of disasters, as is well known. On January 31, 1986, Challenger exploded on lift off, killing everyone on board. Only a little over two years ago, on February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas.

I remember both disasters quite well, particularly that of Columbia. My brother, who lives in Texas, had the misfortune to see the shuttle on its reentry. He told me that when he saw it, he knew something was wrong. Both the Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster had a huge impact on me. Growing up, among my heroes numbered the astronauts of the American space programme, so I naturally mourned the passing of the astroanauts of both Challenger and Columbia.

The American space programme has been in existence now for nearly 50 years. In that time NASA has made some great achievements. We placed a man on the moon and developed a reusable spacecraft (the space shuttle). NASA has also had its share of disasters (Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia). It is hard to say what the future holds in store for the American space programme. I have heard that NASA is developing a new reusable spacecraft, one that will be capable of reaching both the Moon and Mars. The international space station will serve not simply the United States and Russia, but many other nations as well. It seems to me that we could be approaching a time when space travel will be routine. I can only hope that I live to see that time.

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