Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dreaming of "The Final Frontier"

On the evening of February 1st, 1978, I was a fifteen year old waiting for the PBS series "NOVA" to come on our local community television station, WJCT. I had a wonderful little GE Mini Cassette tape recorder that my mother had gotten me on Christmas in hand; I wanted to record this episode.
The opening sequence for "NOVA", as it was in the 1970's.
Image courtesy PBS & WGBH
The week before, the episode was "One Small Step", and it dealt with the events leading up to the  Apollo missions and our landings on the Moon. That episode was important to me, but not enough to warrant recording. When that episode ended, they previewed the coming episode, "The Final Frontier". This episode, to me, was the one that needed to be recorded.
We didn't have a VCR. The first generation units were out there, and more than my family could afford. The little audio recording was going to have to do. 
The NOVA episode "The Final Frontier" dealt with the future of our space program, concentrating on the space shuttle, space colonization, and where NASA was headed. For me, this was of far greater importance than going over the Apollo missions. So, with a C-90 tape loaded, I waited, and when the NOVA opening sequence began, I pressed down, fast and hard, on the RECORD and PLAY buttons, the needed combination to record.
For the next sixty minutes, I recorded, flipping the tape over after forty five of those had passed. I was otherwise glued to the television. The images they showed looked so hopeful, but already I had a feeling that there were forces at work that wanted dearly to put a drag on those activities, perhaps even stop them altogether.
In October of 1977, CBS' "60 Minutes" aired a piece about the work of Gerard K. O'Neill and his studies into space colonization. Not two weeks later, Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin. His response to the people at "60 Minutes" was terse - "it's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone .... I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy."
He led the charge to kill the funding. It was my stepfather who called me into the living room when they read the contents of his letter. It crushed me.
That was one of the reasons this episode was so crucial to me. One of the main themes of this episode was that the space shuttle was "a pickup truck", looking for a mission. The people working on the long term space colonization studies saw the work that they were doing as a way to give the shuttle something to do that was a bit more important. This was a frequent argument amongst critics of the shuttle program; it was a big, and increasingly expensive, vehicle, that seemed to have little in the way of purpose. 
I always thought that those people had small minds. Of course the shuttle had a greater purpose! It wasn't just going to be a pickup truck with an empty bed, hauling the occasional crew to LEO, maybe doing satellite repair as well as deploying them.
By February of 1978, though, NASA's budget was being strained. The ax had been falling steadily on the space agency's budget since before Apollo 11 even landed. NASA was forced to choose between the shuttle and other missions; they obviously chose the shuttle, as it would be a stepping stone, something to build from. When 1978 rolled around, some of those other missions were looking more and more remote. 
On that February night, however, it still looked imminent to that fifteen year old with the tape recorder. 
The adult me now wonders if it was the enthusiasm of the pro-space crowd that may have doomed our dreams, putting them off decades, perhaps a century. Many space colonization supporters showed up at these hearings dressed in "Star Trek" uniforms, and some were, perhaps, a bit too verbose. That may have been the spirit of the times, but one can't help but wonder what sort of message it sent to the officials who controlled the checkbook. That, sadly, is the way the world operates at times. 
Not quite eight years later, we would lose Challenger, and the first serious blow to the shuttle program, and American human spaceflight, was felt. Twenty five years later, to the day, we would lose Columbia, and the fate of the shuttle program was clearly spelled out. There was nothing ready to fill the void, and those dreams we had were now more distant than ever.
For a fifteen year old boy, huddled by his television on a cool, Florida night many years ago, the future looked so very different. I can tell you, for certain, that he is more than a little disappointed.

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