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Bill Virgin: Space race isn’t over, just different

How do you explain the mood, the feeling, of an era to someone who didn’t experience it firsthand?

How, for example, did our parents and grandparents convey the true sense of what it was like to live through the Great Depression, followed by World War II (now there was a cheery stretch of American history) to those of us born after 1945? Sure, we read the books, watched the movies, heard the stories, but we weren’t there. We get the condensed version of the story, and we know how it turns out.

So kids, indulge your parents with some understanding as they try to explain, with limited success, why the news about Neil Armstrong represents something much more than the passing of one man already in the history books.

It’s hard to convey just how significant a place the American space program had in this nation’s cultural landscape – at the time. Kids wanted to be astronauts for Halloween, and an astronaut for real when they grew up. While the Sputnik scare is credited with invigorating American science education, the steady progress through the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs may have had at least as much to do with steering students toward careers in science and engineering. The manned space program also was an affirmation of America’s dominant place in the world, even as political turmoil at home and abroad seemed to indicate otherwise. Our program worked.

But once the ultimate and dramatic goal of putting humans on the moon was achieved, the space program lost its momentum as well as its grip on American interest. The tasks and accomplishments seemed more mundane, even as they delivered to everyday citizens tangible services of greater consequence than Tang – GPS, weather tracking and communication by satellites.

The horrific disasters in the shuttle program encouraged further skepticism about space exploration’s cost and worth. Fewer kids aspired to space-connected careers – better to be a video-game or social-network developer. They wanted to be Steve Jobs, not Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong’s passing does mark the end of an era of sorts, but of the shape and form of Americans’ involvement in space, not in Americans’ participation in space exploration. There’s a new era developing, and what’s interesting is that this region of the country — or at least people based here – could well be a greater part of that new era than it was of the first.

The Northwest was something of a peripheral player in the space program. Boeing’s Kent facility built lunar roving vehicles used on three Apollo missions. Imagine retrieving one of those for Tacoma’s new car museum. What we’re seeing now is more involvement from entrepreneurs and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has had several space-related ventures, including Stratolaunch Systems, a massive plane from which passengers and payloads can be launched into space. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, started Blue Origin to develop reusable launch vehicles.

Bellevue-based Planetary Resources has pulled some big names, including Google’s Larry Page and film director James Cameron, to develop asteroid-mining spacecraft. And last month the Museum of Flight was host to a conference on space elevators — a tether anchored to Earth and a counterweight in space along which people and cargo can be moved — a technology a local company known as LiftPort has been trying to develop for years.

The success of this generation of space ventures might not be enough to get the next generation of youth to put pictures of rockets and distant planets on their walls the way their parents or grandparents did. But it might just rekindle enough interest in space to get some of that next generation to ask, “What’s up there?” and to answer their own question, “Let’s go find out.”