Yet now, I share with millions of other boomers a head-scratching perplexity. Why don’t more of 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 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 Of A Fire on the Moon. 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 kids about the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Of all the predictions* ever made about spaceflight, I figure the least imaginable outcome would have been ennui. The endless tedium of checklists that probably turned off as many kids as the romance of space ever turned on.
*(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. Oh, the lead astronaut was named... Armstrong.)
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, unreasonable expense, 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 the one that was depicted in that film -- a smug and overbearing and fanatically secretive world dominated by patronizing white males.
And if I had to choose... between a civilization that has improved itself and its sense of egalitarian justice as much as ours has, versus one that had taken a little longer to get its spinning space stations and moon bases... well... Let's just say that the hoary old cliche "it's too bad our wisdom hasn't kept up with our technology" may have it wrong, in ironic and weird ways. (For example, the way that both the mad left and the even-crazier right seem compelled to utterly deny the plain fact that so much social progress has been made! A plague on both cynical houses.)
== We are explorers ==
Others are commemorating this anniversary, of course. I recommend one article in Salon, by veteran journalist Joel Shurkin, who covered the Apollo missions way back when. (This essay was published after Neil Armstrong's death, in 2012.) The ostensible topic - what Armstrong meant to say when he set foot on the moon, is actually banal. But Shurkin makes some moving points.
"We should explore space because that’s what we humans do... We explore. We are not content with where we are, we want to see what is over there. It is part of our DNA. When the great explorations of Earth began, there probably were people who told Cook and Magellan and Hudson and Columbus and all the rest that it was a waste of resources or that if God wanted us to find a northwest passage, he would have put up road signs or something. But they went. That’s us."
I nod my head vigorously, but also with a modernist quibble. In addition to Cook and Magellan and Columbus he -- and the rest of you out there -- should routinely add in names of other, non-western explorers. like ibn Butatta and Cheng-ho and Hotu Matua. Not only is this simple justice -- and pragmatically it lets you cancel out the "white-male-Euro chauvinist" reflex-accusation -- it also shows that you are one of the horizon-spreaders. Always ready to think outside your old, confining box.
Someone worthy of talking to others about shattering much bigger boxes. About seeking much wider horizons.**
== The Need for Speed! ==
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.
(Those who believe in an infinite Moore's Law, take note.)
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. The technology spin-offs more than paid for it all and people are moderately proud of robotic space probes like Hubble and Cassini and Spirit and Opportunity. Moreover, NASA's budget is far smaller than most citizens believe; when polled, they always give an estimate that is far higher.
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 -- Dr. Jim Arnold -- 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. Still, despite George Bush's grandiose boondoggle that (thankfully) was cancelled, it hardly seems a useful next destination for us, right now. 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.
== But what were we actually doing? ==
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, why can't we...”
Damn right. If we could do that... well... we could do a heckuva lot of cool things! If we came up with some good old fashioned, win-win pragmatism and gumption, that is.
Then there is the way that one can connect the Moon Landings to Las Vegas and Disneyland and the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR). Bear with me on this one...
All four were perfect expressions of an indomitable human -- but also crazily American -- determination to do or create things we want, long before any practical technology should have made it possible. All four were expressions of desire so strong, that all else that was needed was money... just money. Oh, and in the case of Las Vegas, a lot of water.
The VCR was like the moon shots? Did you ever open one up and watch as it clanked and whirred? What a brilliant, elaborate, insanely complicated Rube Goldberg device! Mass produced so cheaply that almost all Americans had several. It allowed hundreds of millions of people to watch what they wanted to watch, when they wanted to watch it, before any sensible or efficient digital technologies were available to make it so.
Get it now? And the lesson? That we are deficient today only in that one thing -- sufficient desire to overcome our stoked up, artificial resentments and get back to working together again, on something cool.
It is that desire -- and the accompanying genius at pragmatic problem solving -- that the dogmatists and ideologues have killed in us. And that is the real reason we stopped adventuring in space.
== Finally... Apollo may have saved us..==
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. Sure, there were logical reasons to make that shift. But art helped it along. The image of that mushroom cloud seared us. It persuaded, without pallid words.
Ah but then there was the second image that changed us, deeply and forever. That great and transforming work of art was a gift that arrived at the very end of one of the most difficult years any of us can remember - 1968 - twelve crazed and frenetic months that brought most Americans -- and most of the world -- to the brink of exhaustion and despair. Yes, great music washed over us in a veritable tsunami... as did tragedies, war, invasions, assassinations, riots, betrayals, and fed-up demands for transformation.
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 -- just before year's end -- that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in the vast desert of 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 this image -- an artwork purely created by humanity’s boldness and ambition... and the chaste innocent truthfulness of science... 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, until that day comes when our childrens’ children reverse things yet again, spurning cheap, indignant cynicism in favor of fizzing, confident eagerness, leading them once again to resume chanting:
== ...addenda... ==
1) For more on the process of "horizon expansion" or seeking "otherness"... see my big TED-style talk at the Smithsonian - "Will we diversify into many types of humanity?" (Follow the slides on Slideshare!)
2) Mark your calendars for one year from today… Pluto! "We're arriving at Pluto on the morning of the 14th of July 2015. It's Bastille day. To celebrate we're storming the gates of Pluto."