I’m a Sputnik baby. Who knows – perhaps my birth in June of 1958 was the result of some Sputnik-induced frolic, since its launch would have been precisely nine months before.
As a kid, I was a total space geek. I wrote many letters to NASA – scrawled on grade-school writing tablet paper – filled with questions, space ship ideas and pictures. To their credit, NASA always responded – with thick, glossy brochures about Mercury, Gemini, and later, Apollo, which I still have today. I belonged to the club that sent a space-related scale model kit every month, and had the gold coin collection that commemorated every flight, as well as a model of the Saturn 5 that stood nearly four feet high. My dad and I built (and lost) LOTS of Estes model rockets, and the G.I. Joe astronaut and capsule was my favorite toy. My best childhood vacation was a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. I had it bad. Even then, I believe I realized just how much ingenuity and courage was required for success in space.
It seems that Americans demonstrate their need for immediate gratification on virtually every subject. It wasn’t long before moon landings, and later shuttle launches, became routine. (On a recent trip to the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, my young son was most unimpressed with the moon dust that clung to a space suit on display.) Americans were bored with space.
Until tragedy reminded us of the astonishing difficulty and heroism of space travel.