“The light at the end of the tunnel” and “silver lining” are common expressions of optimism and great expectations. For me, such a moment flashed on Friday, April 17th. On that day, Jim Bridenstine, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, announced #LaunchAmerica. “On May 27, 2020, NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” A sensation of excitement ran down my body. I was giddy. America is back echoed in my mind while I enthusiastically nodded in approval.
NASA is responsible for the U.S. civilian space program, which includes aeronautics and space research. Even though NASA says that it was established in 1958, it actually succeeded an existing Federal institution named National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA. Therefore, NASA was not a brand-new institution.
NACA was established in 1915, a U.S. federal agency, to undertake and promote aeronautical research. This establishment was significant because NACA was founded only 12 years after the Wright brothers’ inaugural fight. We all have seen the pictures of Wright brothers’ plane. To me it looks like a large origami flyer. Within a decade of that achievement, a group of people began to fantasize about metal objects, carrying people and flying through air hundreds of miles an hour! NACA was the result of a monumental mind shift. This is paradigm change. A leap that only comes from a purpose greater than oneself. Many innovations came from NACA.
In 1958 we saw the next mind shift, when all the assets and personnel were transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In this paradigm, the thoughts went from fast planes and rockets to fast enough to escape gravity and explore the heavens. The significance of this mind shift is that the content didn’t change, but the context did.
The change in context gave us the Apollo 11 mission, when NASA landed three humans on the moon on July 20, 1969, and then returned all three safely back to mother earth. In the late 70s, the Space Shuttle, a partially reusable low earth orbital spacecraft, was introduced. It was another step forward in space exploration. The shuttle operated from 1981 to 2011. There were five Shuttles, and they flew a total of 135 missions. All launches were from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
2011 was an unfortunate milestone year. On August 31, 2011, the US Space Shuttle program closed shop. On this day, NASA surrendered that they no longer have the means or capability to send astronauts on American Spacecraft, from American soil, to space. To me, it was a gut-wrenching moment and I felt NASA had precipitously dropped from high heaven.
Warren Buffett once said, “In the business world, the rear-view mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” It holds true for any world.
Looking back, the end of the Shuttle program should not have been a surprise. The writing on the wall was clear in 1993 when the National Space Council was disbanded. An ominous sign in hindsight. A lack of interest from the highest leaders of the nation, lack of interest in Program Leadership, cost overruns, unimproved Space Shuttles, and failing to achieve reliable results from Shuttle Missions, all converged on August 31, 2011. On that day, a nation with a rich history of space exploration declared bankruptcy. On that day, JFK’s immortal words from 1961 became a remnant of pride only preserved in the pages of an archive. The meaning of his words withered and died on that day.
Fast forward six years. A glimmer of hope resurged on June 30th, 2017 when the Trump administration re-established the National Space Council. In December of that year, the administration signed the Space Policy Directive allowing the private sector to participate in the United States efforts in establishing flights to the Moon and beyond.
Two years later, in March 2019, a breakthrough announcement came. The Moon landing has been accelerated to four years with a planned landing in 2024. For me it was a breath of fresh air and tremendous moment of exhilaration. On May 14th, 2019, the NASA administrator announced the program had a name, Artemis, and that they will land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and the Goddess of childbirth. If you are thinking genesis, I agree! It is a new beginning!
While the councils and directives are important steps in the right direction, what deeply excites me is the launch of astronauts from American soil on American rockets. This is a validation. A validation of having a purpose greater than ourselves. A validation of the American Exceptionalism. It is a lesson in rising to accept every challenge, especially when you are down for the count. You are driven by attaining the highest level of achievement. You do this by establishing a set of values and having a set of actions that supports those values. The outcome is something that will outlast and outlive us all.
The Apollo generation has laid the foundation, and now we must build on it. Let us call ourselves the Artemis generation. Let’s take JFK’s words out of the archives and into our spirits again.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Fellow Toastmasters, Mark your calendar. Wednesday, May 27th, 2020, to witness a purpose greater than yourselves.