Grandma’s Scrapbook: Downsizing NASA & The Expiration Of Wonder

My Grandma was an amazing woman–great cook, great teacher, great friend, and great storyteller. And oh how she loved for us to sit with her and look at pictures or books so she could tell stories. Grandma loved to compile scrapbooks just for the occasion. She’d tell stories of our parents as kids, of her grandparents immigrating from Sweden, of her parents, whom we barely knew. She loved history. We loved watching “The Waltons” or “Little House On The Prairie” with her. She wasn’t much into Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure she never made it to see “Star Wars.” (Yes, we neglected her I know). But Grandma still got it. Grandma understood how cool space travel was. All it takes is one glance at the legacy she left behind: two handmade scrapbooks from brown grocery bags, strung into a book with yarn, filled with newspaper clippings and pictures of every space mission from Alan B. Shephard’s Freedom 7 through the first Space Shuttle launches.

How I treasure those scrapbooks now–filled with memories of the awesomeness that was NASA’s early days. I was born February 13, 1969, which means I was about six months old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. But as far as my memory’s concerned, Americans have been going into space my whole lifetime…Until now.

I remember the thrill of watching the launches on TV, listening to the old flimsy 45 rpm recording from FORD of the Apollo 11 landing (I still have this 45 rpm but no player). I remember talking with Grandma as we looked at the scrapbooks and thrilling at the images, the discoveries, the awesomeness of every detail. I remember seeing “Moonraker,” the James Bond with shuttles, and dreaming of the day I could go into space. Oh how I longed to go. I knew I wasn’t scientifically smart or a pilot or athletic. But still, it was and is my dream.

The Space Shuttle changed so much. And I remember when astronaut Steve Hawley, our hometown hero, husband of first American woman in space Sally Ride, came to our high school and I shook his hand. A brush with greatness, it seemed. Even mundane chat with Hawley thrilled me so much, such was my admiration and awe for a man who’d slipped the surly bonds of Earth.

But now it’s over. I don’t have kids of my own yet. But I have to wonder what people teach their kids these days about space. When did the awe change to ordinary? When did we lose the sense of wonder and magic at the accomplishment? Space Shuttle missions rose in numbers, for sure. But how did it become normal rather than extraordinary? Why did we allow it to happen? America lost interest in space exploration and the government defunded it. And now we’re dependent on the very people we once raced to beat–the Russians. It’s either them or untested private companies. Do we really want our country’s scientific future in their hands?

I think Grandma would be surprised at any trust in the Russians. Oh Grandma was very accepting and generous to foreigners. She helped many exchange students in her lifetime. She had nothing against the Russians except she remembered Sputnik and the  nuclear threat. She remembered the Red scare. And Communists could never be trusted beyond a certain point. Despite the changes in Russia, I tend to think that way today about any foreign government. After all, they have their own interests to protect. Oh I love travelling to foreign countries and learning their culture and meeting their people. I respect their arts and languages and accomplishments and history. But it’s nonetheless theirs, not ours. We are responsible for our own legacy. So what are we doing placing our space legacy in someone else’s hands?

Looking at Grandma’s scrapbooks today, I know I will do what I can to preserve them. It may be scanning them into a computer or making books of them somehow. Whatever the result, those books must be preserved, not just for their priceless collection of clippings but the priceless memories of wonder shared in reading them. I think we all ought to give a little thought these days to preserving wonder. It’s something we could pay a heavy cost for losing. Not just losing the space race, mind you, but the drive to explore. What will happen if future generations don’t ask the very questions which compelled us to try space travel in the first place? What will happen if future generations lose the ambition of wonder and the desire to explore? Does anyone really want to risk that?

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host ofScience Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.