Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What Space Shuttle Discovery has inspired in us

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst, and Michael Zuckerman, Special to CNN
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Fri April 20, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Space Shuttle Discovery retired this week, evoking mixed emotions from many
  • David Gergen and Michael Zuckerman: Shuttle inspires sadness, but also pride
  • They say it should rekindle our call for leaders who can unite us in challenges
  • Gergen and Zuckerman: The spirit of discovery is still alive in America

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter. Michael Zuckerman is his research assistant.

(CNN) -- Space Shuttle Discovery started out as a way to discover what lies beyond us. Its last flight, taken earlier this week, helped to discover what now lies within us.

Piggybacked atop a specially outfitted 747, Discovery made its flyover Tuesday above Washington -- soaring over the White House and the Capitol, the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery -- en route to Dulles Airport and its new (and final) home, the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center.

All around Washington, people climbed up on rooftops, pulled off to the side of the road or gathered anywhere with a clear view to watch the shuttle's parting journey. The Washington Post reported tens of thousands on the Mall alone.

David Gergen
David Gergen
Michael Zuckerman
Michael Zuckerman

The tone of the onlookers -- reported on CNN.com and elsewhere -- varied, but two important emotions jumped out.

The first was nostalgia, even sadness. There was a sense that the retirement of the shuttle symbolized the trajectory of the country that sent her into space these past 30 years. CNN iReporter Danny Mills called the flyover "really bittersweet," while an online commenter wrote that, while watching: "Tears streamed down my face because this final flight represents the death of the space program. For me, it proves that America took a 'giant leap' to becoming a third-rate has-been."

That dejection is understandable. America, for the first time in three decades, does not have in place a program to send its astronauts into space. We pay the Russians for the service, with plans for a public-private partnership several years away to create new American spacecraft.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Space is not the only -- or most important -- frontier on which we're currently competing, but things are not going terrifically well on some of the others, either.

Our economy's stumbles and fitful starts in the past few years need no spelling out, and most projections have China's economy overtaking ours as the world's largest by 2030. The Economist recently projected that China's military spending could surpass ours by 2035.

30 years, 135 launches in 135 seconds

Meanwhile, we are so failing to educate our children that a recent commission, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City education chancellor Joel Klein, concluded that the poor state of K-12 imperils not just our economy but our national security.

But there was a second, more hopeful emotion in the reactions to the Discovery's final flight -- and that was pride. Pride at what the country had accomplished in the miracle of space flight; pride in what America can still do.

One woman told The Washington Post that the experience might propel her 9-year-old son to become an astronaut. Another wrote on CNN.com, "Now let's move on to bigger and better things so that our grandchildren can say the same about us in 50 years!" A third offered: "I hope we don't become a nation of nondreamers."

The spirit of the day called to mind a scene in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," when Jimmy Stewart first arrives in town and can't keep his eyes off the city's monuments and institutions. Like the onlookers pouring out of their offices or pulling off the road, he slips his handlers, pulled in by the draw of a sight-seeing bus headed for the Lincoln Memorial.

Perhaps part of Discovery's draw -- besides the sheer awe of a machine that had brought men and women to outer space and back -- was its timely reminder that there are still things we can do together as Americans.

The philosopher Michael Sandel has an important new essay in The Atlantic in which he argues that "we live in a time when almost anything can be bought and sold," in which we run the majority of our society like a marketplace. A corollary to this idea is that, as we privatize various projects, there are very few big things we do together as a nation anymore.

Sure, we still have to show up for jury duty and pay taxes, but increasingly our larger national efforts -- building infrastructure, transforming our schools, developing complex new technologies or conquering climate change -- drift along or are farmed out to private interests. Our wars are fought by an elite but all-volunteer military ("the forgotten one percent"), supplemented by defense contractors and other private companies.

If Discovery's last ride rekindled our pride in what we can accomplish together as citizens in a vibrant country, it should also rekindle our call for leaders who can reunite us in tackling those big challenges.

At our Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, we conduct a yearly poll, "The National Leadership Index," to take the pulse on America's judgment of its leaders.

This past year's brought us a near record-low. Only 21% of those surveyed believe that our country's leaders are effective and do a good job, while 77% believe we have a leadership crisis in the country today and that, unless we get better leaders, we will decline as a nation. As Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn puts it: "At this critical inflection point for the country ... people are parched for leaders who can lay out a credible mission."

A half-century ago this year, a young president visited Rice University in Texas to deliver a major address on his plan to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. President John F. Kennedy said this:

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

As the reactions from folks watching the shuttle's last voyage on Tuesday attest, that spirit of discovery still lies within us here in America. But the search goes on for leaders who will ensure it doesn't perish from the Earth.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen and Michael Zuckerman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT