Is the Era of American Optimism Dead?

Looking up at a clear, star packed sky I realized something last night. My entire life has been marked by optimism epitomized by America’s successful exploration of space. When I was five months old the Apollo 11 mission succeeded in answering late President Kennedy’s call and placed the first human being, American Neil Armstrong, on the surface of the moon. After this landing we did not stop, several more manned solid rocket missions were made before NASA finally upgraded our capacity with the introduction of the Space Shuttle program in 1981. Each successive launch from rocket to shuttle was an event and none went off without the full attention of not only the American public but every person on the planet. We watched in awe as year after year man reached for the stars lead and fueled by American optimism.

Of course not all of our missions were successful. There was Apollo 13 which nearly ended in tragedy were it not for the incredible efforts of the scientific minds at NASA. In 1986, when I was in the eleventh grade, I watched from my high school library along with hundreds of other students as the space shuttle Challenger exploded before our eyes. In 2000 we waited for an answer that never came from the Mars Polar Lander. And yet again on February 1, 2003, still reeling emotionally from the shock of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the American public saw the space shuttle Columbia break up on re-entry killing all aboard.

Even with these set-backs I never thought for a moment that we would give up. It was something we did as Americans. We pushed the envelope. We tried and succeeded at doing things no other nation could dream of. It was who we were and nothing would ever deter us.

That is until the turn of the 21st century.

In stark contrast to my life, my daughters life has been marked by terror, war and economic disaster. When she was two months old 19 hijackers flew jumbo jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. This event changed the face of our once proud nation in a way that I am not yet sure is fully clear. The shut-down of Wall Street in the days following the attacks accelerated the collapse of the tech bubble sending the nation into a recession that at the time looked bad in the extreme (until now of course). We engaged in two wars that have drained our treasury and are now faced with an economic recession which is crippling our ability to function as a once proud super power should.

Now, as my daughter turns ten years old this summer she will see the end of a glorious and storied run for American scientific dominance marked by our exploration of space. Yesterday began the final mission of the space shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to deliver a payload of parts, experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. This is the end of the line for the shuttle Discovery and it leaves us with only two remaining shuttle missions, STS-134 (Endeavour) and STS-135 (Atlantis), before the program is retired and manned missions of this kind are done for a least a couple generations. Instead of looking beyond the moon, NASA, crippled by a lack of funding due in large part to an economic collapse that began with those attacks on 9/11 is scaling back it’s efforts. We are reverting to the days of solid rocket boosters to get supplies into space.

I hope beyond hope that this is not the end of American optimism. The American dream has always had as it’s carrot at the end of the stick a goal of reaching for something no one else had ever imagined. We were the “new world,” of uncharted territory. We set out across the expanse of the continent not knowing what dangers would be befall us in order to push for new frontiers and find our American dream. Once our country was settled we pushed again and proved to the world that American ingenuity could create prosperity for millions through our manufacturing might. That drive sent us into space to do things no human could imagine were possible.

Now what? As our children fall behind in math and science, our aging infrastructure goes unattended and our once proud labor force is reduced to defending it’s right to exist, nay-sayers keep telling us that we can not afford to do the things we once did. People are being told to expect to sacrifice the American dream all while the wealth we created in the 20th century has been pilfered by corporations and the ownership class sitting at the top 1% of our population at the expense of the rest us.

Yesterday’s launch marks a critical juncture in our history. Will we rise to the occasion and shout down those that would have us give away our dreams or will we sit back and let them take the American dream and throw it all away. I for one do no want to see my daughter’s life marked by fear,  debt and diminished expectations. What is your choice?

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