Monday, May 5, 2014

The Fleet That Never Was

A comparison of launch vehicles from the early 1960's.
Image courtesy NASA
Today is the anniversary of Alan Shepard's suborbital flight, which signaled the official start of our accepting the Soviet "challenge". With this anniversary, I find myself reminiscing about my dreams of spaceflight.
Sometime in early 1968, my parents skimped and saved and bought a set of World Book Encyclopedia. For the next few years, I would wear this set out, namely volumes "A" and "S". "S" especially; that was where "space travel" lived.
I could barely read when we received it, but I certainly enjoyed the pictures. There was one page in particular, one that compared all the US launch vehicles, and elsewhere was a page that showed the different manned spacecraft, complete with the Vostok in its aerodynamic shell. I didn't need to read, though, I knew these spacecraft by heart.
For the first few years of our having this godsend, I accepted that not only was Apollo operational, but that somewhere the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were still being saved for other missions, just in case. 
And why not?
By second grade, I was checking out space books a plenty from the school library. Most of these books were already seriously dated by 1970-71, and showed things like space stations serviced by Gemini spacecraft, or Mercury spacecraft with all manner of protrusions. Apollo was clearly being saved for the important lunar and deep space missions. 
All of this made sense to my young brain. You have a variety of spacecraft for a variety of missions.
Again, why not?
When I first heard about the "space shuttle", around 1971, it didn't quite sink in that it was to replace the Apollo and all manned spacecraft. It was about the same time that I learned the painful truth.
There were no other "spaceships" being kept in reserve. 
In fact, there would be only a few more missions to the Moon.
This bothered me a great deal.
It seemed to me that we had gone through all this effort to build an infrastructure to allow us access to space, and were letting it go. At least we had the shuttle that was to come, and was set to provide regular access to space. 
As I grew, I discovered more and more just how the space program was really viewed. By the time I became a teenager, I was bullied mercilessly for a number of reasons, among them the fact that I was a "space freak". It was also apparent that the "adults" cared little for space as well. 
Political points were made, we proved we could beat the Soviets, game, set, match, the end. 
When the shuttle finally flew in 1981, more than two years behind schedule, space started being cool again, thanks to movies like the "Star Wars" saga and other science fiction flicks. Those dreams that the child I once had were replaced by a reality that was a lot less interesting, but still promising. 
I suspect that the child I was would be crushed to know that a little more than a decade into the 21st century we'd have gone no further than low Earth orbit.
But these are good times, there is potential, we can stir the pot again, and maybe, just maybe, keep those dreams going. 
At least that's what Robert Ray Little, age seven, would want. 

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