MAXWELL:  Spirits rise along with the shuttle

11/1/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

I was here with members of my 11th grade class on Feb. 20, 1962, when John Glenn, strapped inside a Mercury capsule, blasted into space for the first time. No way was I going to miss his second flight on board the space shuttle Discovery 36 years later.

Critics have complained that this shuttle mission is more about symbolism than substance. They are dismissing the senator’s claim that he is flying to help science learn more about the physiology of aging.

My response?

So what if this mission is symbolic or a walk down memory lane? So what if it is, as the cynics cry, a publicity stunt to revive interest in the space program? And so what if it is a favor to Glenn, a Democrat, for attempting to block a Senate investigation into his party’s fund-raising tactics?

Even if these claims are true, this Discovery flight _ NASA’s 95th shuttle mission _ has inherent value. The space program, never home to cynics and non-dreamers, has served the nation well, always figuring into our collective self-perception.

Space exploration, in many ways, has saved us, and it has saddened us. In the end, though, it always pulls us together. Glenn’s earth orbit on Friendship 7, for example, restored the nation’s pride after the Russians had orbited earth in convincing fashion twice before us.

Subsequent U.S. launches in the 1960s came when the country needed them most, said Walter Cronkite, who, as the CBS news anchor at the time, described Friendship 7’s historic flight and others to follow.

“The space program was a major factor in maintaining some balance of what our country was all about,” Cronkite told TV Guide recently. “That period was the most traumatic decade this country had seen since the Civil War. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, Watergate. The country was splitting apart. The great thing about the space program in those days was (that) it kept us dreaming about the future, which had a very salutary effect in maintaining national sanity.”

Glenn, too, understands the significance of his Mercury voyage. “It was almost like we had turned a corner in our national psyche, almost as though we were at a low point and were starting back,” he told the New York Times.

When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, the nation mourned. Disillusioned, many of us felt responsible for the deaths of our space pioneers. How had we failed? What did the crash say about us? After all, the space program _ the shuttle effort in particular _ had come to represent our growing sense of technological invincibility.

The tragedy even dampened President Reagan’s “Morning in America” optimism, at least for a short time. Several years passed before many of us could bear to watch reruns of the accident on television. Some of us (I am one) still turn away from the images. Many TV stations, in fact, refuse to air footage of the actual explosion.

If the space program is tied to how Americans view themselves, as Cronkite and others argue, then President Clinton’s presence at the cape for Glenn’s blastoff was fitting. The president knew that he had to be there. He knew that the nation feels demoralized because of his behavior. He understood the importance of symbolism, the intangible significance of Discovery.

The fact that Clinton is the first president since Richard Nixon _ another chief executive hobbled by personal demons and who also faced possible impeachment _ to witness a liftoff at the cape is not lost on those who follow such historical parallels and symbolic trends.

When Discovery rose from Launch Pad 39B at 2:19 p.m., however, the 2,000 or so journalists in the press site clapped and cheered. When the exhaust plume poured from the craft’s tail and the afternoon sun lit up the orange fuel tank racing through the clouds, the crackling sound of thousands of out-of-synch snare drums filled the canopied press stand.

“Go, baby, go!” I heard all around me.

Few eyes left the skies until the shuttle had disappeared down range.

This was an American moment, a time when the world watched. I was surrounded by visitors from Canada, Italy, France, Australia, Germany, Mexico, Japan, China, Israel, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Spain, New Zealand, England, Brazil, South Korea, India, Argentina. Like me, everyone was inspired by this U.S.-made phenomenon.

Walking back to my car, I looked toward the roof of the Launch Control Center, where the president and the first lady had witnessed the liftoff. Passing a speaker high on a pole, I heard part of Clinton’s live comments to CNN. He was saying that our space program “is good for the United States and good for the rest of the world.”

The president is right, despite what the cynics say. Ask any of the thousands who crowded the major highways on the Space Coast to watch Discovery take the 77-year-old Sen. Glenn on his second voyage into space.

And by the way, I, like thousands of other Americans and foreign visitors, intend to be here on Dec. 3, when Unity, this country’s part of the International Space Station, is launched on the space shuttle Endeavor.

Cronkite had it right: The space program keeps us dreaming about the future.