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 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
updated 2:24 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT