Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Before 'onward and upward' became a cliché

A half century ago today, man first hurled himself at the stars.

On April 12, 1961, we called this sort of thing "the space race." Well, I didn't. I was only three weeks old, but I am reliably informed this was the case.

For all the angst and nuclear anxieties of the Cold War, for all the trauma of a developing quagmire in Vietnam -- or Viet Nam, as a lot of folks spelled it before we knew where it was -- for all the hope and horror of this nation's civil-rights struggle, "onward and upward" still meant something back then.

Man was reaching for the heavens. The first was a Russian by the name of Yuri Gagarin.

We are in his debt.

Because of Gagarin, my childhood that took flight 50 years ago was one of assumptions that tomorrow would be brighter than today -- despite the troubles and tragedies of the day.

Back then, it was a race for the stars between us and the Reds. Now, we "go where no man has gone before" together . . . more or less.

IT'S A CASE, I suppose, of more enlightenment and friendship and less ability to go it on our own as we slog through this present age of small men and stunted dreams in our respective capitals.

I'd like to think, on this milestone day, that Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard -- America's first man in space -- are somewhere taking in the heavenly view, telling good-natured lies and tall space tales, trading notes on the vanguard of human spaceflight and wondering. Wondering when those of us who lag behind, stumbling through their giant footsteps, will hit our stride.

Wondering when the small minds of our present squabbling factions will remember that humanity once saw farther than the end of its pointing fingers.

Wondering whether mankind will once again look toward heaven and aspire to great things.

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