President Obama used his State of the Union address this week to announce that “this is our generation’s Sputnick moment” as he outlined the need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build our competitors and yet carry out government reform.
His words come just days after the 50th Anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, who challenged Americans to beat the Russians in space. Amazingly a modern day astronaut named Mark Kelly is dominating the news lately, the husband of wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. He was shown holding his wife’s hand in her hospital room during the President’s speech. Her condition has now been upgraded to good, and she will be starting rehab this week.
Kelly has taken over Gifford’s recovery from severe brain injury as though it were a space mission. He asked to have her moved to Houston so he could resume his role as the commander of the Endeavour Space Shuttle, due to make its last mission in April, while also overseeing her care. He’s already declared Giffords “is a fighter” and will be back in Tucson, walking through the hospital doors for a visit in months, not years. His early bedside vigil, accompanied by her devoted congressional friends, produced “miraculous” progress, according to her Tucson Doctors. And the miracle continues in Houston.
It was 50 years ago this month that Kennedy brought the spirit of the mythical Camelot to Washington and announced that the torch was being passed to a new generation in his inaugural speech. Soon afterwards he declared his intention to develop a program that would send Americans to the moon first.
Kennedy was concerned that Russia was developing an ominous lead in space rocketry that would upset the balance of power. Despite Kennedy’s tragic assassination in Dallas before the end of his first term, his dream came true. On July 20, 1969, American Neil Armstrong was the first man to literally step foot on the moon. It was a historic achievement by the United States and was, according to historians, a persuasive demonstration of national will and technological capability for the United States.
Astronaut Kelly’s assured, optimistic assessment of his wife’s recovery reminds me of the best of the space race – and the jubilant early astronauts like Armstrong, who were such strong role models for kids of that era. Where the fear of the 60s was grounded in the specter of nuclear war with Russia, today we face more complex fears, including the rise of China as an economic rival, the fear of nuclear proliferation to rogue states and an on-going war against terrorism overseas we can’t seem to win, but that is driving up our national debt.
Kelly has been showing this country how to stay positive and driven in the face of great uncertainty. And now President Obama is evoking the spirit of Camelot again as he presided over a Congress that was showing remarkable unity , applauding repeatedly together as he asked the nation to “please stand together with me.” Kelly’s optimism and Obama’s call to action reminds us that we met the enormous, almost unimaginable challenge of the space race in the 60s, so why can’t we accomplish miracles on that scale again?