April 20, 2010

Copernicus Cried

“Oh my God!”
“Oh my God!”
“Oh my God!”
My Grandson's reaction as he hunched over to peer through the eyepiece took me by complete surprise, although I understood his outburst of wonderment.  He was seeing another world for the very first time.  The small telescope was just barely adequate to the task, but the pencil-eraser sized image of a bright ball transected by bright bands was unmistakable.  As he marveled at the sight of Saturn and its rings, I recalled my own childhood fascination with the planets in our solar system.
I was only a year younger than my grandson is now when Mercury-Atlas 6, dubbed Friendship 7, carried John Glenn aloft as the first American to orbit the earth.  Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom had already made sub-orbital flights on Mercury-Redstone craft, but Glenn's was the first manned flight of the fragile Mercury spacecraft thrown into the void atop the mighty Atlas booster.  America was now truly a space-faring nation.
A scant eight years later, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin would place mankind's first footprints on an extra-terrestrial body as the human race graduated to space exploration.  The planets, indeed the entire galaxy, seemed to be in our grasp.  Thoughts of space travel charged young imaginations world wide. I too even envisioned a time when I might tread upon another world.
Four decades have past since that time.  Mankind became complacent, settling instead for traveling to space stations relegated to low earth orbit.  It was as if Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had decided to camp out in the town square instead of exploring a continent.  Then a President decided that humans should again strive for the stars, and ordered NASA to shake off the dust and start making viable plans for sending explorers to our nearest solar neighbor, Mars.  There was a renewed excitement and interest in manned space travel.  Humans were finally going to take up the challenge laid before them when Nicolaus Copernicus formulated his heliocentric cosmology theory.
Copernicus brought forth the notion that Earth was not the center of the universe, but only one of many celestial bodies circling the Sun.  Copernicus erroneously thought the Sun as the central body, but his observations were limited by the available technology.  Still, he showed there was much more to the universe than this simple rock inhabited by man, and man has dreamed of reaching those far off places ever since.
Now we have a new President who doesn't believe that mankind should slip the surly bonds of Earth, at least not our Nation.  He has ordered a cessation of that ambitious Mars project, and relegated the once premiere leader in space exploration to the roll of beggar, thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride to that town square campground.  His decree is an affront to those who worked so diligently to place those first explorers on the moon.  Even more so, it sullies the memories of Gus Grissom, Edward White, Roger Chaffee, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

Dennis P. O'Neil