Today is a day of numbers. Some are familiar:
- 11, 175, 77, 93 — The flight numbers of the hijacked planes.
- 3 — The number of airports from which the four hijacked planes originated.
- 8:46 — The time of first impact.
- 2,977 — The number of people killed in the attacks.
- 19 — The number of hijackers.
Others, less so:
- 61 — The number of nations, besides the United States, whose citizens were among the victims.
- 4,300 — The number of civilian aircraft grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration following the attacks.
- 120 — The number of U.S.-bound overseas flights that were diverted to Canada.
- 1 — The number of people who made the decision to completely shut down U.S. airspace.
- 5 — The number of military fighter jets scrambled (alas, too late) from Otis Air Force Base and Langley Air National Guard Base to intercept the hijacked planes targeting the Twin Towers.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Widely regarded as one of the finest speeches in our nation’s history, it was delivered by Lincoln at the ceremony dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery, one of about 180 military cemeteries now run by the United States government in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
With the exception of Arlington National Cemetery, Gettysburg is arguably the country’s best known military cemetery. Like Arlington, the Gettysburg cemetery was established during the American Civil War to bury the enormous number of Union dead. Unlike Arlington, Gettysburg is located in the small southern Pennsylvania town where those there interred died in the bloodiest battle of the 4-year war. Between both sides, nearly 8,000 were killed and more than 27,000 wounded over just three days of fighting.
The Battle of Gettysburg was waged from July 1-3, 1863. Notwithstanding the casualties, it was a Union victory and the turning point in the war. The national cemetery was dedicated 4½ months later, on November 19, 1863. The President’s speech was not the centerpiece of the dedication program. That distinction went to Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts congressman, senator, and governor who had also served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom and, briefly, Secretary of State. Everett’s speech weighed in at more than 13,500 words and took two hours to recite. Lincoln’s remarks were a mere 270 words and were read in just a few minutes.
Contrary to the President’s prediction, the world does remember what he said at that ceremony. His words are remarkable in their simplicity and perfect in their recognition that the dedication of the graveyard was a mere formality.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It isn’t every day that you get to celebrate a 100th birthday. As rare as it is with people, it’s even rarer with ballparks. Unprecedented, in fact. Today we wish a happy 100th birthday to Fenway Park.
Today could have been a day of twin celebrations in Major League Baseball. On this date in 1912, when the first game was played at Fenway (after two days of rain-outs) Detroit’s Navin Field, later renamed Tiger Stadium, also hosted its first game. But after the 1999 season, Tiger Stadium was torn down while still a spry 87.
So now, Fenway stands alone. It’s big deal in a country where shiny new stadiums are increasingly popular, where historic buildings of all types often don’t survive unless local ordinances mandate preservation. In Boston, the preservation was mandated by the fans, who rose up against the former owners’ determination to tear it down and start fresh, and affirmed by new owners who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars not refurbishing and enhancing it.
Even as I wear my “B” logo earrings as a personal tribute, other commendations to the old ball yard abound on the web:
- The Hartford Courant has a basic visual tutorial about the ballpark.
- Yahoo! Sports ranks history’s 10 most historic stadiums (of any sport) and even though the Roman Colosseum came in first, Fenway was right behind it.
Two World Wars, The Great Depression, nothing stopped baseball and the park was always bustling with loyal fans. No other stadium compares to Fenway Park and no other baseball stadium stands today that was built before it.
- Fenway’s jealous younger sibling weighs in.
My name is Wrigley Field. And I’ll try not to be resentful and jealous this week.
You realize what Friday is, right? Yeah, the 100th birthday for that insufferable cousin of mine in the northeast, Fenway Park.
They’ll be going all gaga the next few days over the little twerp. He thinks he’s so cute, there with his Green Monster. I hope he has a power outage.
- CBS News gets the perspective of comedian, Worcester native, and lifelong Sox fan Denis Leary.
Leary said, “That’s the thing about Fenway Park. Even in these seats or those seats, you feel like you can reach out and choke the opposing players with your bare hands at any given moment. And sometimes you feel like choking a Red Sox player.”
- Over at ESPN.com, Jim Caple pays tribute.
I hope Fenway Park lasts to celebrate a second full century in baseball. Although I shudder to think what ticket and beer prices could be there in 2112.
[ . . . ]
“What a cathedral. It’s like going to church,” said Tim Wakefield, who pitched 17 seasons at Fenway before retiring this spring. “The stadium is the star here. Fenway is the star.”
- The New England Sports Network, the cable TV station that is partially owned by the Sox and carries all their games that aren’t nationally televised, marks the 100th birthday with 100 interesting ballpark facts.
10. The Green Monster was originally blue and featured many white advertisements.
[ . . . ]
17. The [grandstand] seats at Fenway are made out of Oak wood.
[ . . . ]
59. Fenway Park is 20 feet above sea level.
[ . . . ]
81. Earl Wilson no-hit the Angels on June 26, 1962, becoming the first african-american pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the American League.
[ . . . ]
95. [Boston Mayor] John. F. Fitzgerald, grandfather of John F. Kennedy, started the tradition of tossing out the first pitch.
- A Christian Science Monitor correspondence and Orioles fan now living in Massachusetts expresses her appreciation of the role the old ball yard will play in her young daughter’s life.
[A]s parents, we have come to accept that when our daughter grows into her team — when she starts memorizing on base percentages and ERAs, when she insists on showing up early for batting practice and the chance to get a player’s signature, when she becomes aghast that we (or her grandparents) have tossed out old dusty boxes of baseball cards that were cluttering up a basement — we will root along side her.
So happy birthday, Fenway Park. We’ll learn to love you. Or at least accept that you’ll give our daughter happiness.
There are many more accolades and others will come. The Red Sox held a free open house for the public yesterday and will mark the actual anniversary this afternoon with special ceremonies and a game against the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees), the same team that played at the grand opening. Both teams will wear vintage uniforms. It isn’t quite the same as logo earrings, but it will do.
To most people, today is just another day. But the more enlightened among us know it as the birthday of some of history’s most important and accomplished people:
- 1475 — Michelangelo Buonarroti Simoni, painter, sculptor, and architect
- 1619 — Cyrano de Bergerac, playwright
- 1806 — Elizabeth Barrett Browning, poet
- 1900 — Lefty Grove, Hall of Fame pitcherr
- 1906 — Lou Costello, comedian
- 1926 — Alan Greenspan, economist
- 1937 — Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space
- 1944 — Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, operatic soprano
- 1946 — David Gilmour, rock guitarist
More significant than all of them, however, is the Love of My Life. Happy birthday to him.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Robert Treat Paine
My Canadian readers are beginning their long holiday weekend today, just a day before we here in the United States begin ours. I wanted to take a moment to wish all of them a wonderful weekend, even though I know that some of them are in places where the internet isn’t easily accessible, on sandy beaches or vast lakes or wooded islands on northern rivers.
I have a surprising number of readers from Canada (or, at least, the servers through which they connect to the internet are located in Canada). The ClustrMap® in the sidebar shows that about 6% of visitors arrive via Canada-based servers, so that figure doesn’t include at least one loyal reader whose internet service comes out of the U.S. My SiteMeter statistics reveal that on any given day, I get visitors from British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario; less frequently readers come here by way of Manitoba, Québec, or Nova Scotia. Can’t say I’ve ever noticed visitors from the other provinces, though I don’t check on a regular basis.
The point is that 6% is a pretty good number of visitors from a country with a population only about 11% of the United States’ population. (For comparison purposes, 73% of my readers come through U.S.-based servers.) The percentage surprised me a bit when I looked it up because much of what I write is commentary on U.S. politics. I guess what brings in the foreign readership is the other stuff, whether it be commentary on international news stories or posts about more universal subjects like music, humor, and daily life. Or perhaps it’s my sparkling wit.
Whatever the reason, I’d like to send good wishes to those Canadians now reading this, as you celebrate your holiday, analogous to mine comoing up on Monday in that both commemorate the formation of our respective countries. Our foundings are starkly different, of course; mine arose from more than a decade of seething discontent that led to six and a half years of violent revolution, while yours evolved slowly and more peaceably. You still have strong ties to the nation we fought to gain our independence, as can be seen in the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. But we’ve been consistent good buddies of the Brits since the end of that unfortunate War of 1812 (did you know we fought you then, too?) and now all of us, together with Australia and New Zealand, are like one big happy Anglophone family. Excepting those stubborn Quebecers, of course, though I’m convinced more of them understand English than are willing to admit.
Speaking of Québec, I was in Montréal in 1999 for the Jazz Festival, and our stay included July 1. We thought it would be fun to check out the Canada Day parade down Ste. Catherine Street. It was a lot like what you might see in a patriotic parade in any America city, except with a different flag. There were ethnic groups with bands and floats—the [fill in ethnic or national name here]-Canadian Society and things of that nature—that evoked the immigrant history of the area. What I found oddly conspicuous was the repetition of the theme of one united Canada. For people in the other provinces, I would imagine, the idea of a united nation is so obvious as to be not even worth thinking about. That’s how it is here, although it wasn’t always so, and that’s another difference between our two countries’ histories; we not only had states follow through with secession threats but also fought a fierce and bloody war over it.
But I doubt history is much on the minds of many north of the border this weekend. Most of the what’s on the agenda is fun, as it should be. So get out there, have fun, and be safe.
Most days on the calendar pass without much notice. Others are significant because of a birthday or other occasion. This date has lots of meaning for me.
- It was on this date in 1775 that the first battles of the American Revolution were fought. See yesterday’s post talking about Patriots Day, which was observed as a state holiday here in Massachusetts yesterday.
- It was on this date in 1981 that the longest game in professional baseball history was suspended after 32 innings of play. The Rochester Red Wings (AAA-Baltimore) played the Pawtucket Red Sox (AAA-Boston) in a game that started on April 18 and was tied 1-1 after nine innings. Play continued for another 11 scoreless innings before both teams scored a run each in the 21st inning. It was still 2-2 after 32 innings when the game was finally suspended per order of the president of the International League. It was finally completed on June 23 when the PawSox scored a run in the bottom of the 33rd.
- It was on this date in 1984 that the man I sometimes think of as my ex-future-father-in-law died after a short but brave fight with cancer. I would have liked to go to mass in his memory this morning, as I did last year, but a commitment at work required me to come in early (thank you, IT department, she said sarcastically). Instead, I said a prayer for him, his wife, and his son, and maybe later when I’m settled down at home, I will have with him one of the imaginary conversations that I sometimes have with important people in my life who have passed on. That sounds strange, but for anyone who believes in life after death, it isn’t really that far out.
It’s also Mike’s birthday, and once again I asked him why he wasn’t celebrating by flying to Boston and running the marathon. He insists it’s still one of his goals. Maybe he’ll do it on his actual birthday, which next happens on Marathon Monday in 2021. He will be 64 then, a mere pup compared to the two octogenarians who finished
today’s yesterday’s race.
Good Monday morning, readers. Today is Patriots Day, and at this moment I’m on a train bound for Boston. Patriots Day isn’t the most obscure holiday we celebrate here in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts*; for that distinction, we have a tie between Evacuation Day (March 17) and Bunker Hill Day (June 17), which for years were observed in Boston and the other three municipalities that comprise Suffolk County. The running joke among those of us in the state’s other 13 counties was that the holidays had become an excuse for government workers in Boston to take off St. Patrick’s Day and an extra beach day. But in fact, they commemorated actual events in American revolutionary history, and it was to some controversy that the legislature abolished them as paid county holidays last year.
By contrast, Patriots Day is undeniably significant not only locally but nationally, as it commemorates the first battles of the American Revolution. (For more about the history, read this post from three years ago.) Everyone who has the privilege of living in this historic area should do him/herself the favor of attending one of the annual battle reenactments or related activities, which bring to life the extraordinary things ordinary people did so long ago to stand up to what was at the time the world’s greatest armed force. The Lexington battle reenactment, which I attended once several years ago, always happens on the observance of Patriots Day (third Monday of April) rather than on the actual date of the anniversary, whereas the Concord reenactment takes place on April 19, regardless of what day of the week it happens to be. Both events have components that take place through the night and culminate shortly after dawn, the time when the confrontations actually occurred.
But history buffs aren’t the only people who can celebrate something special on this day. We have two other big events that are significant in their own ways: the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest ongoing annual marathon, and the Patriots Day Red Sox game, the only game in Major League Baseball’s entire season that starts before noon.
In addition to my lone visit to the Lexington reenactment, I have observed Patriots Day three times by attending the ball game and, after game’s end, walking across the Mass Pike to see the runners pass through Kenmore Square. It used to be that the game started at 11:00 a.m. and the race started 25 miles away in Hopkinton at noon, so if the game wasn’t exceptionally long, you could get to Kenmore in time to see the leaders. Now the race starts between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m., depending on the division, which means that by the time the game spectators get to Kenmore, the winners are long gone. (It is possible, however, to see the wheelchair racers just before the game.)
The first time I did the combo game-marathon thing was in 2004. The weather was perfect for baseball watching at game time, low 70s and sunny, but not so good for the runners. It got worse into the afternoon as temperatures soared into the mid 80s. Honestly, the runners looked like they were going to die. It was a different story when I went in 2007, when it was about 45°F and rainy, miserable for all involved. (That was also the day of the Virginia Tech shooting, which I learned about when I went to get a hot dog and the TVs at the third base concourse were tuned to news instead of the game.) Last year’s weather was a good compromise, low to mid 50s with partial sun. Last year was my mother’s first Patriots Day Sox game, and I managed to convince her that she couldn’t possibly be so close to the marathon and not watch at least a few minutes of it. She ended up having a great time cheering on the stragglers (“Come on, you can do it, just a mile to go!”)
My celebration this year will involve the marathon but not the game. I’ll be with some of my sorority sisters, one of whom lives about two blocks from mile 24. So far, the forecast is for decent weather for both running and watching, with a predicted high temperature of 61°F, partial sun, and a moderate westerly wind (tailwind). I already have my BlackBerry set to receive split times for my friends who are running, so I hope to spot at least a couple of them as they pass.
Sadly, most private sector workers in Massachusetts don’t get today off. I’m taking a vacation day, since my company is open. For those of you lucky enough not to be working, I hope you have as much fun as I plan on having. Be sure to party safely while celebrating our nation’s conception.
(*For the record, Patriots Day is also a state holiday in Maine, which until 1820 was part of Massachusetts.)
In addition to the modern milestones whose anniversaries are celebrated today, we also remember the anniversary of a conflict the likes of which is as old as humanity itself. It was 150 years ago today that the newly founded Confederate States bombarded Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in an effort to expel the United States Army.
The exact date on which the war started can be debated. Some might say it began on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Others might place the start at December 26, when federal troops were moved to the rebel state to secure Fort Sumter. Perhaps the war began on February 8, 1861, when South Carolina and five other states that had also seceded adopted a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America, or on April 11, when the Confederacy demanded that the Union surrender the Fort. All these events and more paved the way to the bombardment that began on April 12 and lasted two days, until the Union army surrendered and left.
The war, the bloodiest ever fought on U.S. soil, would last until the Confederate army agreed to terms of surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Between the two sides, the cost in lives was high: over 200,000 military personnel died from battle wounds, more than 400,000 succumbed to disease while serving. If the brutal war needed any further punctuation mark, it came with the assassination death of President Abraham Lincoln six days after the surrender.
The cacophony of the Civil War echoes even today. Among some in the south, the Confederacy is still celebrated, the rebel flag still flown. Arguments persist over whether such observances perpetuate racism or merely recognize history, and about whether or not institutions named in honor of Confederate leaders should be renamed. We northerners can’t quite figure out why people generations removed from the rise and fall of the Confederacy can’t just let it go. I am proud of the fact that my great-great-grandfather, who was wounded at the siege of Port Hudson in 1863, was on the winning side—the right side. I like to think that I would be slightly ashamed if he had fought for the south instead, but who can say?
The last big anniversary of what was at the time called the War between the States was already a few years underway when I was born, so I don’t know how it was remembered back then. I do know that much of the south was still under the thumb of Jim Crow laws; my parents, who lived at the time in Baltimore, Maryland, recall segregated lunch counters and other signs of institutional racism. Southern schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods remained segregated. The state of Alabama had just elected segregationist George Wallace as its governor. President Johnson’s signature on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was barely dry.
The country has changed since then, not entirely for the better. We are a fairer country but, in many ways, more race-obsessed than ever. How different people in different parts of the country choose to commemorate the war over the next four years will tell us a lot about what we need to do over the next 150 years.
Today is a dual anniversary in the history of human space flight. The anniversary everyone is talking about is of the flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. In retrospect, with the Cold War long over and knowing of the string of pioneering achievements by NASA that Gagarin’s achievement would ignite, it is now possible for even Americans to celebrate the milestone. In fact, it could be argued that American dominance of lunar exploration wouldn’t have been possible without Gagarin; if “the Russians” hadn’t beaten the United States into space, who knows if we’d have had the collective motivation to weather the tumultuous next eight years that included the deaths of three astronauts in a launchpad fire.
It’s funny how quickly people come to accept monumental achievements as routine. Less than twelve years after Gagarin’s flight and barely three years after Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon, space travel was old hat. The Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 was the last manned lunar landing. The Apollo-Soyuz joint US/Soviet project of 1975 was newsworthy more because it brought together in space two nations that were bitter rivals on Earth. The USSR’s Salyut space station was eclipsed by NASA’s near-disaster with Apollo 13, and the US’s Skylab garnered more attention when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart in 1979 than during its six years in orbit.
Which brings us to the anniversary no one is talking about. By 1981, space travel was passé. But that changed with the NASA’s Space Transportation System program and the inaugural flight of the Space Shuttle, the world’s first successful reusable spacecraft. In development at since the late 1960s, its maiden voyage lifted off on this date thirty years ago, on what was the twentieth anniversary of the Gagarin flight. Legendary astronaut John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, was the first shuttle commander. (Film audiences would know him as the character in Apollo 13 who helped Ken Mattingly figure out how to get enough power for the crippled spacecraft to descend from orbit.)
The shuttle Columbia launched early on a Sunday morning and landed two days later. I don’t recall watching the liftoff, which was early on a Sunday morning, but I vividly recall being glued to the TV for the landing, even though it was at a time when I would have been in school, according to the Kennedy Space Center’s STS-1 page. Hmmm…
Though we now look back on the groundbreaking achievements of space exploration with universal admiration, this essay by Megan Prelinger of The Atlantic points out that human space exploration was not necessarily widely embraced in its earliest days. Now as then, debate rages about the value of continued human space flight and what form, if any, it should take. No doubt in another 50 years we will wonder, as we do now about the beginnings of the space program, what all the controversy was about.
On a related note, while I was looking up dates and facts for this post, I was amused to learn that American astronaut Cady Coleman and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson teamed up to commemorate today’s anniversary by recording a flute duo of the song “Bourree,” which Tull was reportedly playing at a concert when humans first set foot on the moon.