Visitors to the state entering from the main northern artery of I-65, are greeted with a similar site: the heavily wooded, rolling hills they’ve seen for the last 300 miles of Kentucky and Tennessee. But, then they approach the welcome center to stretch, and there is another site that catches the unsuspecting off guard — a Saturn V rocket stretching defiantly, arrogantly towards the sky; a reminder that as long as humans have lived, they have looked up into the night into the stars and wondered what is out there.
Those rockets, alongside Alabama’s other inestimable contributions to humanity’s space missions, have been helping to slowly piece together the answer to mankind’s most profound question for half a century.
The history of America’s space program is one that began with a host of unsavory aims and characters: Nazi scientists, the Red Scare and threaten of global Stalinist totalitarianism, nascent high-tech espionage, the Pentagon’s hoped-for militarization of earth’s atmosphere, the hunt for an unmanned long-range nuclear weapon delivery system, and more than a few scientists wondering how feasible any of this even was to begin with.
And, though Kennedy’s called-for moonshot may have been a PR move — an ultimate display of US soft power projection, it grew into a living and breathing testament to what the resourceful, hard-working American people can accomplish; what the marshaled resources of the richest, most powerful nation to ever exist can accomplish when given a singular focus.
The moonshot inspired the world, just as it continues to inspire successive generations of adventurers, dreamers, and scientists. And “moonshot” to this day remains the global synonym for undertaking the tallest of uncertain tasks...and succeeding.
If you’re an Alabamian, you have likely soaked it all in at Huntsville’s US Space and Rocket Center. It’s all there: from Laika and the Russian space dogs, to the awesome Ms. Baker and her monkey buddies, to the catastrophes of space missions gone awry, the sepulchral confines of a lunar lander designed as much to be a potential tomb, to our species’ collective efforts as we would be-Icaruses stretch our wings above the earth. Past, present, future.
If you’ve been once, it probably changed your idea of your place in the cosmos forever. And if you’ve never been, then it’s something to give serious consideration to. Few experiences prepare you for the paradigm-shattering reality that comes from running your hands down the length of a vehicle that has touched another world.
(And, if you grew up poor like I did, Space Camp was a dream only permitted the rare few. Fortunately, they now operate a Space Camp for grownups.)
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