MAXWELL: Our celestial high
9/24/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

At 6:21 a.m. Thursday, I watched the landing of the space shuttle Atlantis on television.
The giant craft suddenly appeared through the darkness of Cape Canaveral and touched down, smoke shooting up from the landing gear. The parachute opened, and Atlantis coasted to a smooth stop, ending a successful 12-day construction mission to the international space station. I did not turn off the TV and leave for work until I saw the six astronauts emerge from the ship and step onto the runway.
Many people believe that space exploration is a waste of time, money and scientific know-how. I disagree. A dreamer, I have been a supporter of space exploration since I was kid, and if I could start life over, I would try to become an astronaut.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to have witnessed 21 liftoffs in person. I was at Cape Canaveral with members of my 11th grade class on Feb. 20, 1962, when John Glenn blasted off in Friendship 7 to orbit the Earth. We watched from a great spot reserved for public schools. After that day, I was hooked on spaceships and our space program in general.
My personal feelings notwithstanding, space flight has held a special place in American life since the program’s inception. It is embedded in our collective self-perception. Either by design or by coincidence, most of our important flights occur at the right time, always pulling the nation closer together during times of real or perceived crises.
Consider Glenn’s triumph on Friendship 7. The voyage of that tiny Mercury capsule restored the nation’s pride after the seemingly invincible Russians had orbited Earth twice already. Other successful U.S. launches followed Friendship 7 during the 1960s – when our spirits needed lifting.
Here is how Walter Cronkite, then the CBS News anchor and the nation’s unofficial cheerleader for the space program, described the significance of NASA’s successes: “The space program was a major factor in maintaining some balance of what our country was all about. 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.”
Speaking to the New York Times many years later, Glenn apprehended the importance of his historic flight: “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.”
And then came the dark times of space travel, when our national psyche was plunged into mourning following the tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
As a columnist for the New York Times Regional Newspapers, I witnessed the Challenger explosion. For several years, many Americans, including me, could not bear to view pictures of the explosion. Some of us, including me, still turn away from the fiery images. Many TV stations still refuse to air footage of that national horror.
These explosions temporarily disillusioned us as a nation and made us question our sense of scientific superiority. Some questioned the value of space exploration per se. Others felt responsible for our dead space pioneers. We had failed them. We had become hurried and too cavalier about safety, even though human life was at stake.
I was at Kennedy Space Center in 1998, when Glenn soared into space the second time, on the space shuttle Discovery. And I was there several weeks later when the first module of the international space station was launched.
Thousands of journalists from around the world crowded the media viewing area. I made a point of reading press badges: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and others.
Although the space station is a collaboration among 15 nations, that first launch was an American moment. And last Thursday, when Atlantis returned to American soil, the event symbolized our technological strength and, most importantly, our essential role as a peacemaker in the world.
Atlantis’ achievement is good for our national psyche during these dangerous and uncertain times.