Happy 50th Birthday, NASA!

Fifty years ago today, in response to the Sputnik crisis, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

For a kid like me, growing up in Florida in the final days of the Cold War, NASA stood as a mixed symbol. On one hand, what a heritage! Stern men in white lab coats, beeping displays, cold readiness, and firey, brain-rattling launches: NASA was a secular monastery devoted wholly to the god Science. Its doings were at once utterly trustworthy, and tinged with deep unease.

Overhead View of Atlantis Stack Rollover

And on the other hand–what a tidal shift. In the decade between 1985 and 1995, the bipolar political alignment of the planet, in place for forty years, unraveled. We lost a shuttle and launched a telescope. The first pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, in all their blurry wonder, were beamed back to a world fresh out from under the heavy blanket of history. The universe expanded in scope and magnificence, while the planet itself seemed so much smaller and more available than it had ever been.

Ed White First American Spacewalker

Is it any wonder our concept of “enemy” weakened? Indeed, we went from threatening Russians with “Star Wars” strategic missile defense, to docking at their space station, Mir.

Children my age, born in the seventies, weren’t around for the run-up of the Cold War that resulted in NASA’s existence. We missed most of the fear, and barely understood it. We knew only Brezhnev, only Gorbachev–a disintegrating threat. Science was an institutional authority to be questioned: Why the militarization? Why did anyone ever think Mutually Assured Destruction was a good idea? We’d missed the opening moves of the Cold War, and so felt compelled to hasten the endgame.

We would use science to clean up the messes that had been made with it. We would join with our former enemies, and save the environment of the only habitable planet science had ever found. And maybe that’s a good thing: as the decades roll on, and government money gets tighter, it’s harder and harder to imagine that space colonization is close.

South Pole of Jupiter as seen by Juno Spacecraft

But part of me is sad, especially to think that Shuttle launches may end in a few years. We may become better stewards of this planet, but will we ever be able to leave it? Was the end of the “Us and Them” political attitude also the end of our deep motivation to master space?

My consolation is the knowledge that those secular monasteries are still there, in Florida, in Texas, in California. They’re still filled with beeping dials, and lab-coated men and women who want to reach the stars far more than most of us will ever know.

Thank you, NASA.