July 16, 1969 I was seven years old. Earlier that month we had moved from the only home I had known – Oakland, Iowa – to a small apartment in Ames as my dad returned to Iowa State University to begin work on a Master’s degree. For a seven year old, that was a tough move. I left the only friends I had ever had, and my first season of organized baseball was over. My younger brother Jay was the only kid I knew in our new town. Mom and dad recognized that both of us were pretty down in the dumps, and combined with the fact that it was summer, were a bit more relaxed on bed time. July 16 was a special evening, and one that I remember 45 years later as the four of us sat in that small apartment in front of our black and white television watching Neal Armstrong take “one giant leap for mankind.”
I do not recall any of the events of the space race prior to this. I don’t recall John Glenn becoming the first American in space, nor Ed White taking the first space walk, which ended up nudging the United States ahead of the Russians. But I do recall the competition between our nation and the Russians. The Russians were evil communists in the eyes of young boys who used to pretend that they were astronauts when they weren’t being cowboys or soldiers. We know that one result of this era was a huge emphasis on science and math in our nation’s schools. When we think back to that time, it is incredible what people in labs developed to support the space program, products that we take for granted today. The motive was to insure that the United States of America was the strongest nation in the world militarily and to prove the superiority of a free, democratic country.
I watched CNN’s series entitled The Sixties and did not realize how fascinated the great Walter Cronkite was with space and flight. I recall seeing clips when tears came to his eyes as he reported Apollo 11 landing on the moon, as well as the absolute joy and wonder in his voice. And I vaguely remember a 60 Minutes episode with him in a glider and sharing his thoughts on flying. But he truly was a champion for the space program at this time, and it was certainly an era of great wonder and possibility, a time for heroes and dreams.
I fear that we have lost this sense of adventure, of pushing into new frontiers. Many see continued efforts to explore space as a waste of taxpayer dollars. At the same time we bemoan how our schools have fallen behind other nations of the world in the performance of our students in science. With STEM programs growing in schools, there is a renewed emphasis, but when you get down to it, all of the reasons I read about to upgrade science are economic in nature. Maybe we need another motivator. Maybe we need to find something else to conquer to stimulate young minds. Perhaps we need to go back to space, or look to solve problems here on this planet that impact the well being of all people on Earth.