May 5, 1961 was an unusual day at St. John's School. Our classroom had a black-and-white TV stationed in the front of the room, tuned to the special news report.
I was in third grade, nine years old.
I knew something amazing was about to happen. Sure enough, at 9:38 that morning, Alan Shepard was blasted in space aboard the first manned Mercury space flight. He wasn't the first man in space; the Russians aced that one. I totally remember the excitement we all felt as the countdown proceeded. Our eyes were glued to that TV set -- imagine! A man going into space! All of us, kids and teachers alike, were openmouthed with the wonder of it all.
It was really, truly thrilling to see that liftoff, even for a nine-year old girl watching a grainy black-and-white TV at the front of the classroom.
Tonight we just happened to tune into the news just as the countdown wound down for the Endeavor space shuttle launch. This time we saw the launch in color, saw the clouds of smoke billow out from under the rocket, watched as the shuttle inched up into the sky, picking up speed, and looked down to the earth as the on-board camera showed us the astronaut's eye view of the liftoff.
I held my breath, remembering the tragic Challenger liftoff in 1986, when the rocket exploded. As the launch continued, we watched as the throttle up occurred and the solid rocket booster fell away. I exhaled.
Frankly, I wonder if the money we spend on space exploration wouldn't be better spent on other, more earthbound needs. But I can't deny it: it was thrilling in the third grade; it was thrilling this evening.