Our adventures in space have been a hymn of national purpose for a half-century, the many high notes of success tinged with somber tones of failure. But always the strains of tragedy have driven us to harder, more precise exertions. When the grief of Columbia's explosion passes, we will be closer together and still climbing "the wall of space" that John F. Kennedy described 40 years ago when he sent us to the moon.
As Americans, we cannot help ourselves. If we do not do these things, somebody else might. That is truly frightening. And fear still drives us.
There was a sleepless night in 1957 when the Soviets put up Sputnik and drunken Russians roared and sang in front of their Washington embassy. Science adviser Vannevar Bush sought refuge behind his closed door until he could figure out what to say about our laggard program.
The gentle astronomer John Hagen supervised the design of the Vanguard's rocket, technically far superior to the Soviet boosters. It lurched and blew up on the pad. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson raged, "How long, how long, O God, how long will it take us to catch up with Russia's satellites?"
We did catch up. We grabbed the defected East German scientist Wernher von Braun, the father of Germany's V-2 rockets, and put him to work. He rigged up one of his Redstone missiles and launched the U.S. satellite Explorer. It was kind of puny, but it sent a message: we were on the way.
The Soviets then put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, just after Kennedy had taken office. When the news broke, the President was getting ready to throw out the first baseball of the season and eat a hot dog. How American. How embarrassing.
That's when an irate Kennedy called in his space experts and told them he wanted to beat the Russians to the moon, and if they did not know how to do it, they should ask the janitor over at NASA. The space race was getting more complex, with men beginning to ride those dangerous rockets. But Kennedy relished the challenge and, indeed, the danger. So did America.
J.F.K. was a nervous man on the morning Alan Shepard climbed into Freedom 7. Always a skeptic about the technical claims of engineers and scientists, Kennedy glumly watched Shepard's launch with his hands jammed in his pockets, expecting the worst. Yet Shepard went smoothly in and out of space in 15 minutes and got the monkey off Kennedy's back.
We marched on into space, but then real tragedy struck during Lyndon Johnson's presidency. Astronauts Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee were suffocated in their capsule by an internal fire. Johnson was devastated. He was no stranger to failure, yet he apparently never believed death could be associated with such a noble effort. But he did not pause long. He drove ahead and drove everybody with him. Success in space began to outweigh the delays and frustrations. Mired in the Vietnam mess, Johnson sought solace in the space exploits. At one point he muttered, "Thank God I've still got my astronauts."