Commentary: Space program possible because of Americans who risk it all

Three men and one woman stood in blue NASA flight suits on July 4, smiling and holding U.S. flags to honor their nation's birthday, as they took a brief break from preparing to be thrust into the heavens four days later with an unwavering confidence in man and machine that most people are hard-pressed to understand.

Most people also are hard-pressed to name any of the astronauts who are aboard the space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station as they circle the globe.

Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus ferried a year's worth of supplies and spare parts to ISS Expedition 28 Commander Andrey Borisenko and Flight Engineers Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furukawa, Ron Garan, Alexander Samokutyaev and Sergei Volkov. When Atlantis makes her return to Earth, scheduled for July 20, she will be loaded with as much trash as possible.

Were it not for the fact that this is the final flight of the U.S. shuttle program, the activities unfolding miles above our heads would garner scant attention.

This is nothing new for aviation pioneers and innovators - they are used to working in anonymity. The nameless, faceless men who risked their lives as Cold War test pilots in the pursuit of science and military might for the United States were no exception. Yet they were exceptional people.

America paid little attention to the activities at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California decades ago, when experimental flights were making possible what would one day be John Glenn's first trip into space. The men toiled in obscurity, their actions known by few outside of their families and the controlled circle of the military.

During the 1950s, the United States didn't want the rest of the world to know what was going on in the deserts of California and New Mexico. As the Cold War simmered in the international spotlight, engineers and scientists worked in secret to develop the next generation of flying machines that could deliver lethal cargo if need be.

The threat of what the United States would do if forced into a position of defense was backed up by real weapons. It wasn't until years after the Cold War thawed that the world discovered that much of the Soviet threat during those years was little more than theatrics and facade.

Away from the scrutiny of America's media, young test pilots daily stepped into massive pieces of machinery, great hunks of steel veined with miles of complicated wiring that intricately coursed through reinforcement joints and instrument panels. These military men (for at that time, all test pilots were male) sat in cockpits and revved up engines that aerospace manufacturers hoped would carry them skyward.

When one of these flights failed - as did the one that in June 1958 claimed the life of my father, Boyd Lee Grubaugh - there were no public memorials, no scholarship funds for the children left behind, no national outcries of sorrow. Unlike the televised disasters that were the shuttles Challenger and Columbia, many men died without a nation's recognition of their important work. Their widows and children drew what strength they could from knowing their pilot husbands and fathers were doing what they loved to do: pushing the envelope, testing the unknown, flying.

Who knows what the next generation of space flight will look like or what insignia will be affixed to the ship's exterior. It's as likely to be a corporate logo as it is a nation's flag. But as routine as liftoffs and landings may seem to the general public, they are dangerous business.

Yes, today's technology is more sophisticated, the computers and materials used to manufacture the parts more exact. But it is still flesh and blood that sits behind the controls; those are men and women strapped inside these behemoths made of plastics and composites, electronics and robotics.

Take a minute to at least remember their names.

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