A long time ago, in another life, I went to my first IMAX movie at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. I was powerfully excited to go, having never been to the museum that houses some of the most important exhibits of our century.
As a child I was consumed with the idea of spaceflight. I watched in absolute wonder as the first Apollo missions took off, their Saturn V boosters the largest and most powerful rockets ever built. I was a child born in the year that Sputnik circled the earth. I read the adventures of Tom Swift and imagined myself as Tom, having all those wonderful and remarkable times as the luckiest boy in space.
Going to the museum was quite wonderful; seeing the Spirit of St. Louis, a Gemini capsule, space suits, and of course, the Wright Brothers’ first plane. Not to mention the highlight of the trip — Astronaut Ice Cream, a freeze-dried confection seemingly lighter than air that tasted like real ice cream, which it was. Except dry, very dry. But opening the aluminum-wrapped package of crumbly fluff, I could imagine myself floating in zero-g happily letting the chocolate/vanilla/strawberry sawdust melt in my mouth. I could eat like the astronauts.
When the time came to enter the IMAX theater I had finished my ice cream and was ready for a new experience: a three-story film of the first Space Shuttle flight of Columbia.
But I was completely unprepared for what happened.
IMAX was something new, but I thought ‘no big deal, really, it’s just a movie’. Still, the massive screen that loomed over me was breathtaking. And then the story of the Shuttle unfolded before me. The preparation for launch, the dizzying views taken from the gantry, the excitement building as we neared the time when the blast-off would happen. The beautiful and tropical feel of the Kennedy Space Center was front and center, with birds on the screen as large as pterodactyls, the caps of palm trees twenty feet high, The beautiful sky against which Columbia loomed ever larger as the camera shot came closer.
And then it began.
The thunder, the astounding rumble that shook my bones, the sound so loud it was making my shirt move with its concussion. There was a magnificence that I had never experienced in my entire life. It was climbing and climbing, a camera on the fuel tank showing the ground recede at incredible speed. I cannot explain it but deep within me there came a most unexpected, most palpable and most joyous well of emotion that I had never experienced before. All of the dreams as a boy of reaching for the stars, the wishing, the hopes not just for myself but for humanity to reach beyond our petty argument and work together to make those hopes real became fact in that moment.
“The space shuttle was often used as an example of why you shouldn’t even attempt to make something reusable. But one failed experiment does not invalidate the greater goal. If that was the case, we’d never have had the light bulb.”
– Elon Musk
When I finally breathed again, I reached up and found that there were tears running down my face. And it wasn’t just me; almost everyone in that theater was overcome by the experience.
But the most amazing emotion was that I realized that in that moment, in that glorious moment that the IMAX film had allowed me to feel, there was a realization that I actually loved America for making it happen. I had, for most of my life, been at odds with what my country had been doing: Watergate, Vietnam, repression of LGBT citizens, inequality in opportunities for women, why, the list went on and on.
Yet here was something of which to be proud, something so real and powerful that it spurred imagination from everyone who saw it, that brought a hope that we could work together toward a greater future, that technological wonder was available to each and every one of us. Surely from this point forward the human race would realize its folly and change direction.
I left the theater exhausted from the experience, physically and mentally. After a decent dinner, my head still filled with wonder, I went to my hotel with an outlook and with a pride that I had never felt before.
Of course, that immediate sense of pride didn’t last. Our country still has problems aplenty. The shuttle program was scrapped even though it was the most successful space program in the history of man, its most advanced technology expressed for research and discovery. And the shuttle that so inspired me from the film, the Columbia, would be lost with many lives.
War has continued, war after war, and cooperation becomes less and less of a sure thing. The human race in its current state is still confused and unfocused. Fear still rules our policies, not wonder, not discovery, not hope.
Yet the Shuttle program showed us that we could do incredible things when we put ourselves to the task of making our hopes real and reject failed policies that harm ourselves, harm our planet and defeat our efforts to move forward as a thoughtful and responsible species. It’s time to take that sense of hope, the sense of drive and purpose and apply them toward solving the serious problems we face here and now: the scourge of mental illness, the specters of disease and famine, the problems of unemployment.
I want to feel that power and wonder all over again. I believe we need it more than ever.