Here we are again. Restarting the space race. NASA launched its first manned rocket from U.S. soil in nine years on May 30. As I watched the high-definition video of the astronauts inside the SpaceX craft, I couldn’t help but think about my memories when the first American rocketed into space.
I was a first grader at Waseca’s Hartley Elementary School when on a May morning in 1961 Alan Shepard’s 15-minute sub-orbital flight launched the United States on the first step to the moon, a mission accomplished in 1969.
I sat in the classroom listening to the scratchy radio broadcast piped over the school’s loudspeaker system. In 1961 classrooms weren’t equipped with TVs. So the only image I experienced was in my imagination. Years later, on a visit to the Air and Space Museum, I stood next to a tiny Mercury capsule that looked nothing like what the 7-year-old me imagined.
Many of my strongest memories of my youth are tied to space. John Glenn’s flight, Apollo 8 circling the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 11 landing on the moon on a hot July night in 1969 and Jim Lovell’s call from Apollo 13: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” (Years later I photographed Lovell when he visited St. Cloud.)
Back on planet Earth, other events were not so uplifting. While astronauts soared high above, civil rights demonstrators clashed with police and growing opposition to the Vietnam War pitted Americans against each other. The nation seemed ready to explode in 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Here we are again. Last week’s protests following the murder of George Floyd reminded me of the riots after King’s death. More than just images of burning buildings and looting came to mind. The rhetoric of the 1960s returned too with talk of “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and the prospect of turning “vicious dogs” on demonstrators – words that described what actually happened in the 1960s. “LAW AND ORDER” means the same thing when Donald Trump says it as it did for Richard Nixon. (Don’t worry white people, I’ll protect you from the scary black people.)
As I watched the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators in Washington, D.C., my mind flashed to the August 1963 March on Washington and King’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, again through the eyes of my little-kid memory.
As an adult, on visits to Washington for work or pleasure, I’ve visited the Lincoln Memorial many times and I always stand on the steps, imagining the day King stood in that very spot.
Whenever I’m in Washington, I always make a point of walking on the mall, from Lincoln to the Capitol. I prefer going at dusk, after the tourists have gone home, and when the monuments are lit. From Lincoln, it’s just a short trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with its black granite walls rising in the darkness.
Farther to the east, the White House appears. Before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, you could actually drive past. Then the Secret Service closed the street to all but pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Sadly, security keeps pushing people back from the People’s House.
Now the old 6-foot-6-inch tall fence is being replaced by a fence twice as high. During the recent protests, (hopefully) temporary fencing around Lafayette Square to the north and the Ellipse to the south pushed people farther away. And for at least one night, the White House’s exterior lights were off. Over at the Lincoln Memorial, soldiers stood in King’s spot, “guarding” Lincoln.
Reacting to George Floyd’s death, The Rev. Al Sharpton is organizing a March on Washington for late August to mark the 57th anniversary of the historic 1963 demonstration. Sharpton said the event will be led by the families of black people who have died at the hands of police officers.
Here we are again.