Space program needs a new leap

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 6, 2011

By Bill Maxwell
St. Petersburg Times

Where were you on July 20, 1969? I was in Fort Lauderdale, recently discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps and preparing to resume my undergraduate studies. Like millions of other people around the world, I was glued to my television set, anticipating what was about to unfold.
Then, it happened: The Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon. The image was grainy, but there was no mistaking what was taking place about 250,000 miles above Earth.
Neil Armstrong emerged from Apollo’s lunar module, stepped onto the surface of the moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong, along with fellow astronauts on the mission, fulfilled the goal of President John F. Kennedy, who had promised on Nov. 25, 1961, that the United States would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
The moon landing, along with everything surrounding the Apollo moon mission, was more than a scientific accomplishment. It reminded most of the world that humankind could rise above its differences and accept shared values of the mind and spirit. It was a symbol for peace and progress. It initiated what was to become a generation of space exploration and discovery.
Supporters of continued space exploration, of which I am one, believe the time has come for the United States to officially acknowledge the significance of Apollo 11’s moon landing by making July 20 a nonpaid holiday on the order of Flag Day.
The holiday would be called Space Exploration Day. Former Sen. Jake Garn of Utah and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, both of who flew on the space shuttle, support the effort. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch also supports it and is working to get it established. NASA officials also support it.
Along with celebrating the Apollo landing, the holiday would remind Americans of the life-sustaining benefits that have come from space exploration. Spinoffs can be found in nearly every field of human endeavor, including energy, geophysics, electronics, industry, medicine, nutrition, oceanography, safety, national defense, pollution control and even urban development with new technology for quality, low-cost modular housing.
Ironically, despite the untold benefits of space exploration, interest and excitement for it have declined substantially in recent years. Some research links the decline directly to less focus on science and math that were traditional parts of American public education. And with the space shuttle program ending this year, interest and excitement for space exploration probably will dwindle even more if something drastic is not done.
Each year, studies show that U.S. children lag behind those of other industrialized nations in math and science. Supporters of space exploration believe that an annual holiday would give our schools and cities opportunities to show children the practical side of what can be accomplished through math and science. Such efforts will spark children’s imaginations, perhaps inspiring them to become space explorers and showing them what they can achieve.
“There is a unique inspirational value that comes from viewing the wonders of nature,” according to the Space Exploration Day website ( “This exploration of the unknown is a natural instinct that is very apparent in young children. We grow and learn to appreciate the joy of life through our discoveries. Space exploration is a discovery process that all mankind can share together. The space frontier is filled with beauty, mystery and wonder.” David Baxter, Space Exploration Day Holiday founder, said the goal is to persuade President Barack Obama to issue an executive order permanently establishing the holiday. But he recognizes the difficulties involved in getting the president’s attention.
“White House staff members resist the Space Exploration Day Holiday due to hundreds of requests they receive for frivolous holidays every year,” he wrote on the website. “The Space Exploration Day Holiday is unique in that the mission of Apollo 11 was one of the greatest events of the 20th century … the holiday would serve the president’s and the nation’s interests well.”
• • •
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. Email: