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
April 20, 2012 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
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
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT