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 9:27 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 6:09 PM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT