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Scientific triumphs lift rockets — and our spirits

My mom let me stay up to watch.

It was almost midnight in Puerto Rico when Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon for the first time on Sunday night, July 19, 1969. I was 7 years old. But I still remember that night. That was an exciting and triumphant time! It was an anxious time too.

Environmental degradation, international crises, civil unrest, war – the Seismic Sixties and the onset of the 21st century Twenties, so far, share much in common. Have we been here before?

I know it’s not exactly the same. This 21st century is part of the age of acceleration, brought on by technology and globalization. Information is at our fingertips, as is potential contagion from a pandemic. But there are important parallels that can be drawn from a half-century ago.
John Morales

While the U.S. was convulsing politically in the late 60s, like we are today, the country had also embarked on what could well be – considering the state of science and technology at the time – the greatest engineering feat of all time. Earlier in the decade, President John F. Kennedy declared “We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard”.

Damn hard. Huge sums were spent. Lives were lost. But in the true spirit of American greatness, indeed we put a man on the Moon in 1969. We will never forget the thrill of this historic moment, one which made us so very proud to be American!

Fast forward to today and we’ve just shared in another thrilling scientific accomplishment. An American private company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – SpaceX for short – developed a rocket and space capsule capable of sending humans into orbit and a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

For the first time since the Space Shuttle missions, astronauts blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, instead of in a Soyuz rocket from Russia.

SpaceX was formed in 2002, just a year before the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. That tragedy served as a catalyst for the George W. Bush administration to incentivize the growth of the commercial space industry. Grants from NASA were instrumental in sparking early success at SpaceX, and in 2008 they became the first private company to send a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit.

With President Barack Obama doubling down on commercial space investments, SpaceX became the main supply vehicle for the ISS throughout the last decade. Aside from its eccentric genius CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX is also well known for landing their reusable rockets vertically, a la Buck Rogers – a gripping thing to watch knowing how difficult it is to accomplish. It is, after all, rocket science!

That’s why watching astronauts Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley – affectionately known as Bob & Doug – lift off from the Cape on Saturday was so nerve-racking. Human beings. At the top of an explosive mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen. On a corporate rocket. What could possibly go wrong?

Precisely nothing went wrong. It was a flawless launch, and butterflies in my stomach gave way to a big lump in my throat. For a thrilling afternoon, all the ills of the world were briefly masked by the glare of a historic technological feat.

Science has served mankind in so many ways that we take it for granted. Medicine has lengthened life expectancies and improved quality of life. Engineering allows for fast travel and commerce. Technology keeps us all instantaneously connected. Sometimes it takes milestones like the Moon landing or the SpaceX mission to remind us of the wonders of scientific achievements.

The pandemic has made many realize again that scientists serve as critical sources of factual information and guidance. We have flattened the curve of coronavirus, and lives have been saved thanks to scientific expertise. Thanks to science, a vaccine may be available in record time. In times of crisis, I’m reminded of the promise of mankind’s ingenuity.

And while the virus has rightfully garnered much of our attention, the climate crisis continues unabated. Pollution and greenhouse gases were briefly in check but are ramping up again quickly as economies reopen.

But cleaner forms of energy are emerging, and with the guidance of expertise as well as political will, we will see a much more urgent international effort to slow the rate of global warming in coming years. And a growing number of corporations are launching efforts to be more sustainable.

When the glow of the SpaceX launch dimmed, the grim darkness of all that is happening enveloped me again. But I know we’ve been here before. It may not be scientifically accurate to say this but allow me the liberty to declare: it’s always darkest before the dawn.

John Morales is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and Chief Meteorologist of NBC6 South Florida. He is a member of the board of directors of the CLEO Institute.

“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.