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Sounds like old times. Very old times. Like the mid-1960s, when Project Gemini, the two-passenger interlude between the trailblazing solo Project Mercury flights and the epochal three-man Project Apollo missions, aimed for the moon.
If the weather is cooperating at 4:33 p.m. Wednesday at Cape Canaveral’s historic Launch Complex 35A, Robert Benhken and Douglas Hurley will be the first humans to lift off from US soil since Space Shuttle Discovery last flew 11 years ago.
Benhken and Hurley, veterans of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — that’s NASA to you — who once flew on shuttle missions, will make their first voyage aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is being boosted into orbit by the aerospace company’s re-useable, returnable Falcon 9 rocket. By Thursday, they will dock with the International Space Station for an indeterminate stay with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
That this venture is being subsidized by commercial business, specifically one founded and presided over by multibillionaire and space travel campaigner Elon Musk makes this Crew Dragon mission an historic one, a milestone in a second space age in which NASA enables far-sighted buccaneers like Musk to endow adventures that were once the sole province of the US government.
Yet one can’t help noticing that this unprecedented moment in American history is happening squarely in the midst of a global pandemic in which millions of people have died and many millions more are without work and sheltering in place.
This somewhat discordant collision of circumstances will likely generate questions from anxious or bereaved citizens to both NASA and Musk along the lines of: We’re sitting on our hands and literally dying to know when there’s a vaccine or a cure to Covid-19 and you’re choosing now — now — to stage this shiny, noisy shot in the dark on TV? Where are the priorities here?
I doubt such questions will be even this polite. And they won’t be assuaged by assurances from all concerned that these plans were in play long before the coronavirus was first detected four months ago. Or that it’s Musk’s money and not the taxpayers’ that is most at stake in this endeavor.
Think back, if you’re able, to the years 1965 and 1966, when Project Gemini seemed to be firing its two-men crews for multi-day missions every other month and bringing them back alive each time. They came in a decade, an era, when the nation seemed more comfortable and emboldened to take big chances in all areas of life, whether in the heavens or in the streets.
We’re no longer as rich or, certainly, as optimistic about including human space travel in our inventory of national concerns, though it’s helpful to remember that there were Americans who wondered even then, especially after the deadly Apollo 1 fire that came in 1967 almost immediately after Gemini wrapped up its final mission, whether beating the Soviet Union to the moon was important enough to invest billions of dollars.
Still, in the half-century since Apollo 11 fulfilled the goal set by President John F. Kennedy (“landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”) new generations of Americans have come to view the lunar landing as being even more remarkable and retroactively inspiring.
Maybe it will be mere nostalgia that brings people to their viewing screens on Wednesday (or Saturday if the launch is postponed). But one also senses that something primal could also be aroused. Faint stirrings of faith in scientific possibility, so that instead of asking, “Why are we doing this?”, we ask: “Well, if we can still do this, then why can’t we cure this disease that’s killing our people and our treasure?”
Does anybody have a better idea?