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The Shuttle Fly-Over and the Death of the Big Idea

April 17, 2012 1 comment


Anyone who says the public has lost its sense of wonder about science and space and technology was proved wrong Tuesday.

People were perched on roof tops, stopped at bridges, gathered at parks and monuments- all eyes trained to the sky. School children screamed with delight as the big 747 lumbered at low altitude with the workhorse space shuttle, Discovery attached, pockmarked over 39 trips to space and now headed toward its final resting place. It was an oddly electric moment that came seemingly out of nowhere.

And here we are either paused or stalled or seemingly disinterested anymore in scientific and engineering achievement. The shuttle fly-over seemed sadly symbolic; not only the official end of the space shuttle program, but the death of the Big Idea.

Where are the leaders who think big thoughts? Where are the men and women who dare to dream, to change our world, to look at our planet, our solar system, our universe and see possibility and discovery?

It seems a narrow world these days- a world of accountants with green eye-shades who spend their days counting dollars and make their living killing dreams. It seems to be a world of timid leaders who think of the future in terms of weeks and months instead of decades and generations.

Next year will mark a half a century that we lost the President who sent us on a mission to the moon. Imagine a legacy founded on a dream that would extend that long into the future.

I was in 2nd grade at St. Rita’s elementary school when a nun with a scared and worried face rushed into our classroom. And we sat at our desks, praying the rosary, grown-ups and kids, hoping against hope that it couldn’t possibly be true that the young President had been shot and was now fighting for his life in a hospital in Dallas, Texas. I know the romance of JFK and Camelot has long been shattered but it wasn’t all just illusion. There were big dreams and big ideas that died along with that man.

I am reminded of those beautiful lyrics from Paul Simon, one of the poets of this aging generation of mine:

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come at the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune

It would be nice someday to sing the American tune again with a sense of joy and wonder instead of our current dirge of sobering sadness and never ending limitation. Never ending possibility is so much more inspiring for the human heart.

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