"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Last Spacemen

The last space shuttle mission is over.   Done, finis, caput.   Sayonara, spacemen!

This makes me so sad.   The space shuttle was probably a bad idea, and wildly too expensive for what it accomplished.   Why did we stop at the moon and say, now let's just be content with shooting a flying brick into close earth orbit?   Why didn't we say, to hell with it, whatever else we do, Americans are going to Mars?   As Mickey Rourke said in the great movie, Diner, "If you don't got dreams, you got nightmares."   Now we have a national nightmare of a sea of debt and no Mars landing to remember it by, just a lot of medical bills for baby boomers, and flat screen TVs to watch Star Wars on TBS.

James Lileks had a similar impulse, perhaps because he's of a similar age, when The Right Stuff wasn't a movie, it was what we were seeing as little kids on the nightly news:
NASA is keen to tell you there’s a still a future for sending Americans into space, but there’s a general cultural anomie that seems content to watch movies about people in space, but indifferent to any plans to put them there. This makes me grind my teeth down to the roots, but I suppose that’s a standard reaction when the rest of your fellow citizenry doesn’t share the precise and exact parameters of your interests and concerns. That’s the problem when you grow up with magazines telling you where we’re going after the moon, with grade-school notebooks that had pictures of the space stations to come, when the push to Mars was regarded as an inevitable next step.

I can see the reason for taking our time – develop new engines, perfect technology, gather the money and the will. It’s not like anything’s going anywhere. But it’s not like we’re going anywhere if we’re not going anywhere, either – when nations, cultures stop exploring, it’s a bad sign. You’re ceding the future. If you have a long view that regards nation-states as quaint relics of a time in human history when maps had lines – really, you can’t see them from space! We’re all one, you know – then it doesn’t matter whether China or the US puts a flag on Mars. It’s possible a Chinese Mars expedition would commemorate the first boot on red soil with a statement that spoke for everyone on the planet, not a particular culture or nation. It’s possible. But history would remember that they chose to go, and we chose not to.

So what’s the attachment, really? Childhood attachment to Star Trek fantasies, geeky fascination with spaceships, adolescent marination in sci-fi visions of rockets and moon bases and PanAm shuttles engaged in a sun-bathed ballet with a space station revolving to the strains of Strauss, phasers and warp six and technobabble and the love of great serene machinery knifing through clouds of glowing dust? Probably. It’s not over, I know – but it’s like watching the last of Columbus’ ships return, and learning they’re cutting up the mast for firewood, and no one’s planning to go back any time soon. At first you look at the ocean and imagine what’s out there, because that’s what you’ve been doing all your life – and then you lean to stop wondering, because it reminds you of the day you saw the last ship leave.
If some Presidential candidate would run on a platform of cutting Social Security and Medicare to the bone and instead funding a mission to Mars, he'd get my vote.   Life isn't about making sure that Grandpa can get his two artifical hips down the aisle to the slots in the casino; a man's reach ought to exceed his grasp, or else what's a heaven for?

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