Skip to main content

Shuttle exits and with it America's dreams?

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Tue April 17, 2012
The space shuttle Discovery is airlifted from Florida's Kennedy Space Center to Washington, D.C., where it will be on display.
The space shuttle Discovery is airlifted from Florida's Kennedy Space Center to Washington, D.C., where it will be on display.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: He'll watch as space shuttle is flown above Capitol
  • He says as a boy he was entranced with promise of space travel
  • He says U.S. early space progress tracked with civil rights movement
  • Seymour: Discovery's exit may signal end of America's capacity to dream

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.

(CNN) -- This morning, around 10 a.m., I was 10 years old again.

At that hour, the space shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA jetliner, soared over Washington and the Capitol Mall on the way to its permanent home at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport.

I had walked over from my apartment complex toward Southwest Waterfront Park along the Potomac River to see this double-decker aircraft flying over my head, and stared agog at it like the goofy space-age nerd boy of 50 years ago, face pressed against a black-and-white television screen, listening, back then, to the voice of NASA media spokesman John "Shorty" Powers count backward to zero before a ballistic missile boosted a Project Mercury astronaut into low Earth orbit.

Read more about the shuttle's destination

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Back then, it was hard not to imagine that by 2012 we would have a permanent multinational lunar base from which ships with people would be traveling every other month to Mars -- and from there, maybe, to one of Jupiter's potentially habitable moons. We can see those things better than we once did, thanks to things like the Hubble Space Telescope, which wouldn't be working now unless people went up in shuttles for repairs and maintenance. But we're nowhere near being ready or, worse, willing to go there ourselves.

Spot the shuttle, share a photo with CNN iReport

I have many friends who think that's just fine. They're a lot like the friends I had back in the '60s who believed I was a ninny for gaping at space walks and rendezvousing spaceships, while billions of those dollars were more urgently needed on the ground for such things as education. Maybe they're right, I sometimes thought.

Discovery begins its final flight
Touring space shuttle Endeavour

I don't think that anymore, having read in "Space Chronicles" (Norton), a recently published collection of articles by astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, that only 4% of the U.S. budget during the 1960s went toward meeting President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing men on the moon before 1970. He also writes that even with the shuttle program in place, along with all those satellite repair missions, the $100 million operating budget for NASA represents six years of the agency's total funding and that said funding amounts to "one half of one percent of [a U.S. citizen's] tax bill."

Which still sounds like too much to some. But think of what, ultimately, we're buying with that money. I'm not just talking about all that ancillary technology generated by space travel that eventually improves people's lives. I'm talking about something more intangible and, yet, more vital to our basic needs. Bear with me.

I believe it wasn't just coincidence that both the space race and the civil rights movement reached their respective apogees at roughly the same time: the late 1950s and early 1960s. Think about the integration of Little Rock High School starting barely a month before the Russian launch of Sputnik, which galvanized the United States, pushing it toward not just sending its own satellites, but also getting busy with improving and funding math and science education.

I also think about the morning of May 5, 1961, the day that Alan Shepard was scheduled to become the first American to fly into space, an act that would help commit his country to a full-fledged moon race. That same morning, newspapers all over the country showed a picture of a bus set ablaze by white racists wishing to quell a movement by black and white civil rights activists to ensure racially integrated travel on interstate bus lines in the South.

At the time, the tendency was to think of such events as being at best mutually exclusive. I think they are now both logical and synchronous outgrowths of the human impulse to break down barriers and move ahead. The less afraid we are to think outside the box scientifically, the less afraid we are of other barriers, other things that constrict our natures. This week, Major League Baseball celebrated the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947. Seven months later, almost to the day, Chuck Yeager poked a hole in the sky with a rocket plane and broke the sound barrier.

I do not say one event led directly to the other (not necessarily, anyway). But I do think both were driven by the same insistent energy to fly higher, push harder, maybe even make ourselves better people in the very long run.

I will try very hard not to consider Discovery's last touchdown as the end of something, though I still fear it may signify the beginning of the end -- not just of a dream, but of our very capacity to dream.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT