Finley: Space program defined my generation

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Editor's note: This column is reprinted from July 19, 2009. 

Growing up, if one of my parents was in the school building, chances were good that I was in trouble.

A rare exception came on a February morning in 1962, when I looked up to see my mother stumbling into my second grade classroom, her arms wrapped around the bulky black-and-white television set that normally sat in our living room.

Astronaut Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag deployed on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface.

She plopped it on a desk, adjusted the rabbit ears and soon my classmates and I were watching as the seconds ticked down and astronaut John Glenn rocketed across the screen and into space as the first American to orbit the Earth. Watching TV at school was unheard of then, and I couldn't have been prouder of my mom.

For baby boomers, the space program is a common thread that runs through our lives. We were young children when John F. Kennedy made the race to the moon a national mission, and teenagers seven years later when the mission was accomplished. We watched the Sunday night lunar landing with our families, and by then some of us had color TV sets.

We watched every launch and every splashdown on television, molded rockets out of clay for school art projects and dreamed of following our Apollo gods into space.

The new Space Age dulled us to the marvels of technology — the inventions and innovations came so fast that that we stopped thinking about them as miraculous and absorbed them as a matter of course.

Those advances enabled our generation's break with traditions. Space-age electronics fed our obsession with music; discoveries in everything from food processing to fabrics loosened our ties to home and family; the arrival of high-tech plastics made the essentials of our lives more portable and more disposable.

The space program helped make us the first truly modern American generation, the first whose growing-up experience was different in nearly every way from that of our parents'.

Pride in what America's astronauts and scientists were accomplishing should have fueled our nationalism. But while man was walking on the moon, Americans were marching in the streets.

Just three months after the lunar landing, the Days of Rage student riots erupted in Chicago, an angry reminder that a nation capable of taking man to the moon still had some work to do back on Earth.

As adults, our fascination with space ebbed somewhat. The shuttle program didn't thrill in the way those Apollo shots did. The drama was gone. But not for long.

I was working the city desk at The News in 1986 when the Challenger exploded, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and her crewmates. Once again, I found myself huddled with my peers, eyes glued to a television screen, watching history.

The footprints Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left on the moon's surface are expected to last forever. For sure, the imprint the space program made on my generation also will endure. 

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.