If you aren't familiar with a NASA Social (previously "NASA Tweetup"), it's an outstanding outreach program through which NASA selects followers on various social media platforms (originally Twitter, as the name suggested, but now expanded to include Facebook and Google+) and brings them to a NASA or NASA-related site and presents them with a program designed to engage and inform and spark that very same passion I erupted with after my experience. Some of them events surround missions, visits from astronauts, or advances NASA technology, but the most sought-after social events surround launches. While I never received the opportunity to attend a space shuttle event, I was honored to be invited to the NASA Tweetup event for the Juno launch in August of 2011.
Attendees were treated to an informational program at the Kennedy Space Center Press site (which made me realize that all previous delusions of any supposed intelligence I may personally possess were purely fabricated) and were then escorted around the space port, as well as Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where we were allowed to act like 5-year-olds on Christmas morning as we witnessed that which we'd only dreamed of seeing before.
Yeah, it's me and my BFF, Discovery. No big.
Oh, that? It's a rocket. Whatevs.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be lucky enough to be asked back AGAIN, but when word was posted to the whole of the Interwebz that a NASA Social event was going to be held for the SpaceX COTS 2/3 launch, carrying a private capsule (the Dragon) to the International Space Station for the first time in history, I threw my name in. I was excited I was picked for the wait list, but as the launch date changed over and over and finally drew near, I had not been "promoted," and had resigned myself to watching from the sidelines.
The launch was scheduled for May 19 at 4:55am. May 14 around 1:55pm, I was sitting at work, idly playing on my phone while I waited to pick up the students from science lab, when I got that fateful tweet that would change everything:
I may have squee'd like a small chicken.
Despite the fact that NASA's planetary exploration division is going strong and several revolutionary military satellites have been launched into orbit already this year, as far as many of these 5th graders knew - and, indeed, as far as many Americans, nay, HUMANS know - NASA is over, kaput, total history.
How wrong. How sad.
And even more disturbing is the heart-wrenching fact that, by and large, everyone is okay with this! They've accepted it and they've moved on. Sure, space was fun while it lasted... but really, it's just an expensive fireworks show that results in some videos of men and women with crazy floating hair slurping balls of orange juice as they float around the cabin, right? No practical usage. Politics aside, Newt Gingrich was laughed out of an election for even SUGGESTING colonizing the Moon. Whether you support his specific proposal or not, it was evident that the underlying problem here were images of 1950s sci-fi movies with unrealistic heroes and unachievable space stations danced through everyone's heads. It was childish folly that a grown man held on to - not hope for the future, not that burning impetus for mankind to reach out and touch the stars, to claim his place in the cosmos. And that mind set is what allows mankind to "settle" for what we have right now. Sure, the space station is nice. We'll refuel it until it burns out, and then... well, there it is.
The future belongs to those who refuse to accept that humanity's boundary is firmly carved in Low Earth Orbit. It belongs to dreamers who look at the stars and say, "why not?" and the doers who pour every ounce of inspiration into saying, "here's how!" It's the same spirit that brought us out of the oceans and down from the trees. Why did humanity evolve? Because it REFUSED to settle! It's against our very nature to underachieve. Being human, in essence, is a lifelong quest to attain something, anything! To die leaving the species just a little better off than it was before you existed. Everyone has that spark in them, but so many have learned to quell it.
When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, some Americans dared to ask "what's next?" against the prevailing current of apathy. Some were brave enough to seek out an answer, and SpaceX answered loudly, "this! This is next!" In December of 2010, they became the first private company to launch a capsule into orbit and successfully recover it. With America lacking transport, under its own power, to it's orbiting outpost, the International Space Station, SpaceX said, "hey, guys, it's cool - we got this." (May not be an exact quote.)
And so, fueled by that nagging human spirit within all of us, and driven by heroes who refuse to let it down, on Tuesday morning, May 22 at 3:44am, SpaceX's Falcon 9 lifted off. The capsule would successfully berth with the International Space Station on Friday May 25, putting the United States "back in business" through commercial resupply.
I stood there Tuesday morning, in wet grass, barely on my own two feet due to exhaustion, and stared up at the sky. There were more stars visible than I usually remember in this specific area, and I tried to take them in, to imagine their immensity and felt that familiar feeling of insignificance wash over me. But I felt something else, too - something I know a lot of readers here will recognize. I felt that flame within me, the one that carried humans through time, across the globe, and into space in the first place. The urge to go farther, the absolutely necessary and vital drive to explore and push and never stop. I knew that someday, every single person in the world, every single human being would look back at this moment, united not as countrymen, but as kin, and realize that THIS was the moment we refused to say NO. This is the moment we refused to submit to earthly bonds and carry on never knowing what the Universe held. NASA brought us to the moon, and it probes even farther every day. It's contributions are invaluable and can never be fully appreciated. But this was mankind itself, no politics, no agendas, saying, "those stars? Bring them to me."
And the Dragon roared into the night. And we stood there and watched it vanish into the sky. And I'm sure I wasn't the only one whose heart went with it and whose mind dared to dream of what we'd reach, as a species, if only we keep striving to BE human.
That's how history was made last week - not by anything greater than the simple determination to be more than we are.