Mets in pennant race, NASA out of space race

| |

Wherever I happen to be in the country, no matter what the story, no matter what the hour, I will always check box score. Last week, while in Florida, it was the Rangers, the Devils and the Yanks and the Mets.

And it was the Mets who caught my eye. Their record was better than the Yankees, and at the time of this writing, they were actually a contender in the National League East. I thought of all the so-called pundits who had written them off after the Madoff scandal. Okay, you’re right, I was one of them! But what the heck do I know? About baseball, not as much as I think.

Ya gotta believe. The Mets, despite recent down years, have always been the team of dreams. All because of one magical year for baseball, 1969.

While I was reading those scores, I was sitting in NASA, at the Kennedy Space Center, where the folks there had produced one magical year for America, 1969.

I was covering the launch of the SpaceX rocket, which was the first commercial venture that would supply the International Space Station. I was also witnessing the beginning of a new era in space exploration. Now NASA, once the province of the best and the brightest, is sub-contracting space. We can’t get into space right now, unless we want to hitch a ride with the Russians. The Russians! The ones we beat in the race to the moon.

The Kennedy Space Center seems frozen in time. The buildings, with a few exceptions, have a 1960s feel to them. I half-expected to see the ghosts of Major Nelson, Major Healy and Dr. Bellows to appear at any moment.

In fact, the nearby town of Cocoa Beach is fast going out of business. Despite having an “I Dream of Jeannie” Lane, there is no magic that can save this town. Mock-ups of the shuttle adorn so many shops on the main drag.

But the shuttle was a product of 1960s technology, and was stretched far beyond its timetable, like an aging ballplayer sent up for too many at-bats.

And NASA, and the space program, and yes, sadly, Cocoa Beach, fade into a dubious history.

We don’t want to follow our dreams anymore. We are no longer Columbus, or Lindbergh, or Hughes, or Armstrong or McAullife.

There are only two astronauts of the Mercury Seven still living — 90-year-old John Glenn and 87-year-old Scott Carpenter.

Exploration now costs too much, we’re told, and it doesn’t pay off. It doesn’t get a politician votes. It doesn’t win cold wars or space races anymore.

So those of us of a certain age who watched Apollo, and figured by now we would be populating Mars, instead ponder a nation’s inability to keep its infrastructure from crumbling.

I did get to witness the launch of the SpaceX rocket from a platform about four miles away. The dark morning sky lit up. The ground shook. It was quite a thrill for someone who never saw the shuttle go up, or the Saturn 5, or the Gemini, or the Mercury. But it was also a sad farewell.

NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, got the spin award for this quote after the launch: “We are now on the brink of a new future, a future that embraces the innovation the private sector brings to the table.”

What he meant to say was: “We have no money. They keep cutting our budget. So maybe the people in the private sector will make it look like we are still in business.”

There is nothing wrong with innovators like Elon Musk, the CEO and chief designer of SpaceX, stepping forward with a plan that he hopes will produce a manned mission in just a few years. But it’s fascinating to me that the nation that still dominates the technology race (Google, Apple, Microsoft) has walked away from exploration.

Elon Musk runs SpaceX, but the U.S. has become Space Ex.

NASA is for all practical purposes out of the space race. At least as June 2012 arrives, the Mets are still in the pennant race.