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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Why did we stop looking to the skies?

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Published:   |   Updated: December 4, 2013 at 01:03 PM

There was a time when we looked up more than we do now.

It was especially true around here on days when those huge rockets would thunder off into space from across the state.

On those rare days when it was clear and cold, you could practically see the shuttle slowly rising in the east and arcing off into orbital climb.

Those launches never failed to reach down into your insides as you stood there and tried to imagine what it might be like to be one of those space pioneers.

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About a month ago, we were on a cruise ship coming down the Atlantic coast. In the early dawn off Cape Canaveral, we slowly drifted close enough to see the gantry towers of the spaceport, dark and lonely shadows in the distance.

I used to hear it called the last frontier, or maybe that was just the TV show. Today, if Americans want to head out into the vastness of space, as we like to call it, we have to buy a seat on a Russian rocket headed for the International Space Station.

I know, I know; it's a temporary thing while we shift our dreams into deeper space. But didn't the president cancel that program to Mars two years ago?

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But we don't look up anymore. Everyone I see on the street or sitting in a passing car has his or her ear to a “smartphone” or some other reasonably intelligent device talking to who knows who or what.

Personally, I suspect about a third of them aren't talking to anyone. They must figure if they look like they are busy nobody is going to bother them. I think cellphones have become our electronic security blankets.

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A couple of weeks ago, India launched a spacecraft that is scheduled to go into orbit around Mars in September.

Last week, China successfully launched a “Long March” rocket carrying a lunar lander called Chang'e 3. It is scheduled to make a soft landing on the moon's Bay of Rainbows. If it all works, they will roll out a six-wheeled, solar-powered vehicle they call “Jade Rabbit.”

Big deal, you may be mumbling. It's the Chinese; they can't even make drywall. We were doing this stuff almost 50 years ago. And we did it again and again. We did it so often and with such skill we even began taking it for granted.

I know that down here at the Type and Gripe factory we became so blasť we didn't even bother sending a reporter over to the cape that January morning when the Challenger exploded across the sky. I'm not sure our country ever fully recovered its spirit after that.

Today, we marvel that our government can't seem to get a website working after years of effort, or that our country appears to be drifting inside some kind of Sargasso Sea — the SS Sequester — entangled in a mass of seaweed.

I don't worry so much about what they are doing in India or China. Our concern should be looking up again, instead of blaming others while we pass the buck.

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