As the father of three teenagers, I share with millions of other boomers a head-scratching perplexity. Why don’t today’s youth care about outer space?
The easy answer would be to seize upon a simple nostrum -- about each era rejecting the obsessions of the one before it. But then, in that case, why is the very opposite true about popular music? Back in the hippie era, music divided the generations. But today? Well, my kids adore classic 60s and 70s Rock. In a surf shop or bike store, all I have to do is mention a few of the concerts that I snuck into, long ago, and the brash young fellers are at my feet, saying “tell us more, gramps!”
So why do they yawn, when we turn to the NASA Channel or tape the latest shuttle launch to show them after dinner, or when we talk about colonizing Mars?
Or when we brag about being members of a species who walked on the Moon? For certain, you don’t hear astronaut mentioned on any list of dream jobs.
Puzzling over this quandary, I was reminded of something Norman Mailer said, when he wrote his 1960s tome SPACE. Mailer had begun researching the book amid feelings of smug, intellectual hostility toward the crewcut engineers and fliers he encountered... only then his attitude shifted when he realized, in a startled epiphany that: “They were achieving not one, but two bona fide miracles.”
Feats that -- when Mailer really thought about it -- struck him as truly Biblical in proportion.
1. They were actually going to the Moon!
2. They were actually succeeding in making such an adventure boring.
Mailer’s insight came to mind, while I was talking to my kids about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Of all the predictions* ever made about spaceflight, I figure the least imaginable outcome would have been ennui.
*(Speaking of predictions. In a 1959 comic strip Jeff Hawke, the writers forecast that the first human landing on the Moon would happen on 4 August 1969, missing the real-life date by only two weeks.
Of course, policy has had a lot to do with it. Members of the astronaut corps were always willing to accept a level of calculated risk similar to -- if more carefully managed than -- the adventurous pioneers of aviation. Perhaps the public might also have accepted the kind of casualty rates that usually occur on a frontier -- they did in Lindbergh’s time. But politicians could not. They wanted promises of “routine access to space.” And so, the shuttle proved an expensive and awkward mix of overblown promises, lost opportunities, relentless nit-pickery and mind numbing sameness. Not at all what we expected, back when my peers sat in dazed wonder, in the front row, watching Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Nor is that entirely a bad thing. As I point out elsewhere, we may have failed to build magnificent, rolling space hotels and moonbases that frolic to Strauss waltzes. But our civilization is a better one, than was depicted in that film. And if I had to choose...
Now consider a few other perspectives. For example: ever since the invention of the steam locomotive, human beings (or their machines) managed, every passing year and decade, to keep traveling faster at an accelerating rate -- a curve that kept spiking ever more vertical, until we launched the Voyager space probes on their pellmell fling past Jupiter and beyond the Solar System, in the mid 1970s. Extrapolating that curve of ever-greater speed, some expected that we would, by 2010, dispatch probes to distant stars! We might easily have landed humans on Mars, using Freeman Dyson’s marvelous Orion-drive ships. It all appeared as inevitable and obvious as Moore’s Law of computer development seems to a different generation of techie-transcendentalists.
Only then, quite suddenly, the curve of acceleration abruptly stopped -- after 150 years. The Voyagers still represent, in many ways, a high water mark of humanity’s progress in space, culminating and concluding our raucous search for speed. At least, for now.
Indeed, millions now look at the Space Race obsession as a mark of earlier immaturity. Sure, we benefit from weather and communication satellites, and reconnaissance-sats spread the worldwide strategic transparency that arguably save all our lives, during the Cold War. People are moderately proud of robotic space probes like Hubble and Cassini and Spirit and Opportunity. But, when it comes to dreams of men and women, venturing into vacuum waste, well, you can hardly even find that happening in movie sci fi anymore, let alone our rel-life ambitions.
Certainly, when it comes to the actual Moon itself, I look with skepticism upon any thought of hurrying back there. My own graduate research advisor was the fellow who predicted there might be ice in lightless crater-bottoms, at the north or south lunar poles -- and if it turns out to be true, there may be something useful about the place, someday. But, despite a politician's grandiose boondoggle, it hardly seems a useful destination. Not compared to the riches that await us at near-Earth crossing asteroids, for example. Or that prime piece of real estate that has already caught the Russians' eye -- Phobos. Or the possible abode of life that is Europa.
And yet, in honor of this anniversary, I want to make two points, in defense of those quaint old missions to the Moon.
First, they serve as a backstop against the gloom and pessimism that seem to be preached by cynics of both right and left, at every turn. How many of the arguments for some ambitious enterprise or another begin with: “If we could go to the moon...” Damn right. If we could do that... well... we could do a heckuva lot of cool things, with some gumption, that is.
Finally - I believe the Apollo missions helped to create some of the most important art in human history.
That's a bold and strange statement. But let me dare to define effective visual art as some work or representation that subtly changes human beings just by the sight of it, transforming hearts and minds without verbal or logical persuasion.
By that reckoning, the 20th century featured two hugely effective works of visual art, both of them gifts of physics! First, the terrifying image of the atom bomb altered forever our little-boy romantic attachment to war, beckoning us instead us to grow up a bit in dealing with this new and awesome power to destroy. Defense became the business of serious grownups. Even (especially) among soldiers, war itself is now seen as evidence of failure - an urgent and risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence.
The second image that changed us was a gift that arrived at the very end of one of the most difficult years any of us can remember - 1968 - a year that brought most Americans to the brink of exhaustion and despair.
Only then, a final token arrived -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box...when the Apollo 8 astronauts brought home that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in space. A picture that moved even the most cynical hearts and changed forever our outlook towards this fragile oasis world.
I'm willing to argue that it was that image -- a work of art that was purely created by humanity’s scientific boldness and ambition -- that transformed us more than anything else. Perhaps making us better, more responsible citizens and world-managers. But also -- one can hope -- possibly sending us down roads that will make us more ready and more worthy, when that day comes for our childrens’ children to reverse things yet again, to once again resume chanting:
For a somewhat expanded version of this essay... and other goodies(!)... drop in at the wonderful site TOR.com.