The Americans who go to Mars and beyond will someday be called astronauts.
Today, though, we know them by another description: third-graders.
On Tuesday, Twila Schneider, of NASA, spoke first at Fairview Elementary and later at Columbus High School, she told students of NASA’s plans to resume manned missions to deep space, something NASA hasn’t done since its last moon landing 44 years ago.
NASA has been working on that project since 2011, designing the spacecraft required to send men and women to Mars and points beyond.
Testing on the first of those Space Launch System spacecraft, designed to carry a crew of up to four astronauts, is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2018. A spacecraft designed to carry the necessary cargo for such distant trips will follow, but it will be many years before that dream becomes a reality.
NASA estimates the men and women chosen for those missions are third-to-fifth graders now.
It was hard to gauge the interest among the students in the program. They watched attentively as Schneider shared some basic facts about the SLS and the multitude of jobs that will be created by the program, not only astronauts, but engineers, designers, even writers.
Fifty-five years after President John F. Kennedy announced that Americans would go to the moon before the end of the 1960s, NASA is again dreaming big dreams.
If SLS can recapture the spirit of excitement created back then, we may see a rebirth in interest in math and science, fields of study once dominated by America — thanks in no small part to our space program.
Older Americans still remember the wonder of it all.
It is notable that CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, considered the most trusted man in America during that era, was brought to tears on the air just twice in his long and illustrious career. The first occasion was when he announced the death of Kennedy in November 1963. The second was the moment he announced to the world that Apollo 11 had landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. In both instances, Cronkite’s emotions mirrored those of the nation. We were deeply saddened by the Kennedy assassination, but the tears shed on that July day, 47 years ago, were expressions of wonder, pride and joy.
It seemed a simpler time, a time when Americans dreamed big dreams and then achieved them. Somehow, our dreams have gotten smaller over the ensuing decades, and the idea that Americans can come together to achieve a big common goal is now open to debate.
We are a divided, self-absorbed people — suspicious, cautious, and shortsighted. America’s first space program produced innovation and technology used in an endless array of practical uses. The computer technology first created to support that effort has forever changed the world.
Returning to deep space may create similar technological wonders.
But the best result may be that we, as a people, begin again to dream big dreams.
Who knows? That dream may have taken root in the heart of a child sitting in that assembly at Fairview Elementary on Tuesday.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.