A few unseasonably warm and sunny days in mid-February, and we’re seeing a few green shoots peeking through the old grey mulch in the flower beds of Columbus. It’s an encouraging sign of spring, but we know that Midwestern Februarys are notoriously fickle. Sure enough, the forecast is for an abrupt turn for the worse, with temperatures in the teens predicted for later this week. Now we’ll be worry about whether those nice green shoots will make it until spring.
Here we go again. We’ve gone through the first part of the presidential campaign, with votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. The Democratic and Republican fields have narrowed . . . and weirdness prevails.
Let’s face it: none of these states is really very demographically or culturally representative of the country as a whole, but still they get to be the filters that sift through the candidates for the rest of us. So we get to see cardigan-wearing candidates yakking at town halls and hugging distraught young people. We try to understand obscure delegate selection rules — why caucuses, and not outright elections? — and hear about which Republican is going to appeal most to the born-again crowd. And Dixville North, New Hampshire gets it’s name on the national newscasts, just as it does every four years.
And each result in these early contests gets blown up to titanic proportions, even if the real differences are small. Consider yesterday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada. Hillary Clinton won with 6,238 votes versus Bernie Sanders 5,589 votes. That’s less than 650 out of less than 12,000 votes, yet now the pundits say HRC has Big Mo on her side. And 12,000 votes? In Ohio we get that many people at some high school football games. Should a few thousand casino workers in Las Vegas and Reno really have such an influence on presidential politics?
Every four years we seem to ask this question — why don’t states like Ohio have a larger role in the presidential selection process? It’s being asked again this year, too. Ohio is a state that closely mirrors the country as a whole. It’s got big cities and rural areas, it’s got labor unions and small businesses, it’s ethnically and culturally diverse, and it’s politically diverse, too. And, perhaps most importantly, every election cycle Ohio ends up being one of the crucial “battleground states,” whereas no candidates are going to Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina when general elections are in the balance and Election Day is drawing near. Yet, in the primaries, we don’t get to Ohio until after the candidates wade through predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire and largely evangelical states like Iowa and South Carolina, and some candidates who conceivably might be viable have dropped out because they’ve run out or money or failed to appeal sufficiently to the born again contingent. This year may present the same kind of scenario.
I know, some people will talk about the historic role of Iowa and New Hampshire, or say that it’s good for candidates to start in “retail” settings before they move to “wholesale” politics, but those are just rationalizations for a candidate selection process that just makes no sense. So this year we say what we say every four years: why not start the electoral process where it always ends up — in Ohio?
This year, NASA set a new record for the number of applicants to its astronaut program. 18,300 people applied to join NASA’s 2017 astronaut class. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those hopefuls will be disappointed, because NASA expects to actually select only between 8 and 14 astronauts.
When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, every kid wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Of course we did! Every time there was a rocket launch we trooped into the school auditorium to watch it, and when the rocket cleared the launchpad we cheered in support of those brave men riding in the capsule at the very tip of that pillar of flame. In my third grade class our science project involved a life-size mock up of the Gemini capsule, covered in aluminum foil, that sat in one corner of the classroom. From watching Walter Cronkite on TV, we knew all of the steps in the launching and recovery processes.
So obviously we dreamed of one day being astronauts. Astronauts were celebrities. Astronauts were cool — like the Beatles, except clean-cut. Astronauts were the future. Astronauts were leading the great national effort for America to win the “space race,” and they got to go to the White House and meet the President, too.
The days of intense national interest in rocket launches and sending a man to the moon are long behind us. We don’t even have a space shuttle program anymore, and space flight opportunities are limited to occasional trips to the International Space Station. But NASA is hopeful that a new era in space flight is just around the corner. It is talking about sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, private companies are increasingly getting into the space business, and the movie The Martian was a big hit that made astronauts world-wide heroes again. Maybe the manned space program will once again come to the forefront.
I think it says something positive that more than 18,000 people applied for the astronaut program. People still want to be part of a great effort, still want to move the frontiers forward, still want to explore. In short, they still want to be astronauts. Why not? Heck, I still think it would be cool to be an astronaut.