From blast offs to smartphone launches, from payloads to downloads

"We have lift off" -- Gemini 8 heads into the sky (1966) (photo: NASA via Wikipedia)

“We have lift off” — Gemini 8 heads for the sky (1966) (photo: NASA via Wikipedia)

Watching the launches and splashdowns of manned space missions is one of the shared experiences of being a kid during the 1960s. For many, it meant gathering with family members or schoolmates in front of a television, anxiously awaiting the successful blast off or the safe recovery of a space capsule and its heroic astronauts.

The minutes before a launch were full of excitement. As the countdown proceeded, we’d eagerly listen to newscasters talk about the mission’s duration and the spacecraft’s payload, in addition to what the astronauts were doing in the capsule to ready themselves.

The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions were designed to lead us to successful moon landings, and that they did in 1969. If you want to be reminded of the drama and excitement that accompanied this effort, then rent the 1983 film “The Right Stuff.” And take a look at this excerpt (about four minutes) of President Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech at Rice University:

Today, we don’t have that communal excitement about exploring space. We don’t show up to the breakfast table, work, or school the next day talking in breathless tones about a mission to the moon.

Instead, we talk excitedly about smartphone launches. We share recommendations about great new apps. And we await new versions of gadgets that will render our current ones, purchased just a year or two ago, “old.”

Yup, I marvel at what my laptop and iPad can do. And though I dislike cellphones, I bow to their remarkable capacities.

But we’ve also lost something in the way that our excitement over science and technology has become a more private affair, in some cases sharply limited to those who can afford the gadgets. Perhaps the pioneering space missions are destined to remain the stuff of childhood memories, but I lament the passing of shared awe and wonder over how great advances in scientific know-how can enrich our lives beyond our last download.

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