A small group of strangers gathered on Memorial Island at 4:00 AM on February 8, 2010 to watch the last space shuttle pierce the night sky over Florida. Following the launch, we quietly shared our mutual sense of having lost something. Since President Kennedy announced the beginning of the race to the moon, manned missions to outer space seemed to be a natural part of society’s continual progress. For 27 years, space-shuttle launches became so common that unexpectedly seeing one while waiting at a traffic light became unremarkable. Ironically, missions to the International Space Station now required the assistance of the nation that initially triggered the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.
Cape Canaveral became the home to America’s rocket ambitions when our government relocated Nazi rocket scientists there after the war. According to historian Gary R. Mormino, “Florida’s space age began with the firing of a 56-foot, 14-ton missile consisting of a German-built V-2 rocket with an American-developed WAC-Bumper in its nose.” 1 The desire to expand America’s space goals resulted from the Soviet Union’s success in launching the space-orbiter Sputnik. The contest changed an unpopulated backwater from a little-known producer of citrus into a scientific center teeming with engineers. Mormino notes that “Melbourne High and Satellite High soon led the state in National Merit Scholars.” 2 NASA launched a nation into space and the State of Florida into modernity. The everyday sighting of space shuttles reminded us that the American spirit remained alive. Kennedy expressed that spirit when he said “those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.” 3
How then can we not be heartened by the return of Americans to space and to Cape Canaveral? The shared vision of Elon Musk and our leaders at NASA recalls for us the posthumous fulfillment of Kennedy’s dream. The images of the launch and the International Space Station remind many of us of our own youthful dreams. Yet, today we find ourselves witnesses to other familiar images. It took longer for America to implement the decisions of Brown v. Board of Education than to reach the moon. President Kennedy announced his vision of an American on the moon in September of 1962. The following August Martin Luther King Jr. described his own dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Sadly, we no longer need to visit the Kennedy Library to be reminded of how these two aspirations can coexist in times of crisis.
Yet, there is hope. The 1960s show us that we can achieve what seems impossible. We did bridge the 240,000-mile distance between the earth and the moon. We bridged the even greater gap at home with the successes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We are beginning to see the opening of businesses around the country and around the world. Tourism seems to be returning to Florida and Disney World is about to reopen. Unprecedented government efforts to stabilize the economy are being accompanied by improvements in the business climate that are better than anticipated. As the recent space launch demonstrates, Americans can still work together to achieve great things. We have high hopes that, through our united efforts, a return to prosperity and opportunity for everyone can be achieved.
1.- 2.) Mormino, Gary R. Land Of Sunshine, State of Dreams (Gainsville: University Of South Florida, 2005), 156-157.
3.) John F. Kennedy Moon Speech - Rice Stadium, September 12, 1962.