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GUEST COLUMN: Space program propelled us into science — Can it happen again?

GUEST COLUMN: Space program propelled us into science — Can it happen again?

Our generation was inspired by the Apollo space program. Can a new space age do the same today?
GUEST COLUMN: Space program propelled us into science — Can it happen again?
A shoulder patch from the Apollo 11 lunar landing Monday, July 6, 2009.
Photographer: Peter r. barber/gazette photographer

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle.”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong touched the moon’s surface and spoke the unforgettable, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was the summer of ‘69, and we were 15 years old.

The moon landing was the culmination of launches and splashdowns that we’d been watching for years, a spectacular event that cemented our love of science.

It was a magical time for kids like us.

The “space race” began with the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, a holdover from the Cold War. A few years later, President John F. Kennedy declared, “Before this decade is out, America will land a man on the moon and bring him home safely.”

We did!

Going to school in the 1960s meant having a regular window seat as our country developed the sophisticated technology needed to answer President Kennedy’s challenge.

More from 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing

We watched the take-offs, imagining we were there in those stands at Cape Canaveral, and watched the sky anxiously for the first flashes of a returning capsule.

Following the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs launched many young people into careers in science and technology.

The wonder of discovery drove us to pursue chemistry, biology, physics, geology and engineering, simply because they were interesting.

And we thrived on the challenge that President Kennedy posed: “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Kids like us reveled in the future worlds of Star Trek, even though the final episode of the first version aired June 3, 1969, shortly before Apollo 11 landed, canceled due to low ratings.

But we loved it. We didn’t just imagine future space colonies, on the moon, Mars, Alpha Centauri and beyond, we knew it would happen. But it didn’t. We grew up to be scientists anyway.

Once careers started and children arrived, we didn’t keep track of NASA as we once had. We were stunned and saddened when the Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986, killing all seven on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Thoughts of space travel faded as Star Trek continued in its various incarnations.

Then about four years ago, on vacation in Florida, we took a side trip to Cape Canaveral.

In a huge museum-hangar hung huge actual capsules. Outside, sitting on bleachers, we could see in the distance the remnants of rockets, echoes of the magnificent space program that had turned us on to science back in the ‘60s.

We felt like astronaut Taylor at the end of “The Planet of the Apes” when he sees the broken Statue of Liberty emerging from the surf and realizes what has been lost.

The last person to travel beyond the Earth’s orbit did so in December 1972. Where will we be by that 50th anniversary, 2022?

By 2023, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his guests will reportedly orbit the earth in SpaceX’s Big Falcon rocket.

By 2024, NASA promises to land the first woman and another man on the moon, as part of the Artemis program. (Artemis is the Greek goddess of the moon and twin sister of Apollo.)

The words “We’re going forward to the moon to stay” rotate on the NASA website, against a backdrop of phases of the moon, reminiscent of the word scroll at the start of Star Wars movies.

The space age, it appears, is back!

We welcome Artemis and the trips to Mars that will follow.

Along the way, another generation of curious kids will be inspired, as we were.

More from 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing

Ricki Lewis, a geneticist and author of many books and articles, provides genetic counseling in Schenectady and teaches “Genethics” online for Albany Medical College.

Larry Lewis, a retired inorganic chemist, was principal chemist and Coolidge Fellow at GE for 32 years and holds 106 U.S. patents.

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