Saturday, September 22, 2012

Endeavour

Someday, little children,
Someday soon
There's gonna be a lot of people, yeah,
And they'll be livin' on the moon
--from the song "Someday, Little Children," by Jeff Moss
I have a question, and I think it's a fair one: does the current administration believe it's their job to put the era of manned space flight to rest?

Yes, I've noticed we've put some rovers on Mars. Yes, there's still a space station orbiting far above our heads. Yes, the private space transportation industry is in its nascency. But the spirit of the Apollo missions and the STS, and the promise of the Constellation project? Nope. The Obama administration appears to be doing its utmost to kill it all -- as though all that gassy talk of "Yes We Can" transforms into "Oh No You Don't" the moment it reaches the upper atmosphere.

The space program is one of the most visible signs of American exceptionalism -- the idea that the combination of unparalleled personal freedom and a citizenry drawn from the peoples of the world creates a nation that can do anything it puts its mind to doing -- and President Obama has publicly distanced himself from the belief that America is anything special, other than in the minds of its most reflexively nationalistic citizens. This is a clean break from one of his fellow Democrats, a major backer of the American space program, who often articulated his perception of America's special place on the world stage:
I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set.... "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill -- the eyes of all people are upon us". Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us -- and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill -- constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.
President Kennedy was raised not with the jingoistic belief that his country was always to be championed, right or wrong, but with the understanding that America had been blessed by its Author with a remarkable bounty, and that "to whom much is given, much is required." It was the belief of so many Americans during that time -- an understanding that we would build an amazing and wonderful society. The song quoted above, which was sung on Sesame Street when I was a tiny child, told the children of the '60s and '70s that they would some day live in the future painted by the lyrics. There was an implicit promise embodied by that song, by the space program, by the culture that spawned both -- that the future was an exciting place, not something to fear, but something to look forward to with anticipation and delight.

Which is perhaps why, although I've never been as avid a fan of our space program as many of my friends, I've watched the sad procession of the space shuttle Endeavour the last few days with a mixture of nostalgia and disquiet. I remember when the first shuttle was launched, and it seemed a clear dedication not only to the promise of continued manned spaceflight, but to further exploration and, eventually, colonization of the solar system. Writer Damon Lindelof, on Twitter, referred to this last-hurrah aerial parade as "an open casket wake" for the Space Age. More generally, what it suggests is that America has officially seen its greatest glories in the rearview mirror and will hereafter experience a long decline, like the Endeavour's last slow glide back into the atmosphere.

I'd be inclined to agree, except I still believe that America is exceptional. The recipe of personal freedom and a huge cross-section of humanity tends to breed mad genius in our midst. And if government won't take people to Mars, the private sector (partly composed of just such mad geniuses) will have to take up the slack -- assuming government doesn't decide to police our use of space. But don't be too concerned about that; in the words of Douglas Adams, "Space is big. Really big." Good luck screening off the whole sky, Feds.

So, goodbye, Endeavour. Sorry we gave you such an early retirement. And all you mad geniuses out there? Let's go to Mars. (First.)

4 comments:

Julie said...

I seriously doubt, considering the rhetoric of smaller government, that a McCain presidency would have been more friendly to the space program. In fact, I'd argue they would have killed the idea of even going to Mars.

Soozcat said...

It's difficult to say what an administration that never existed might or might not have done under identical circumstances (if indeed identical circumstances could be assumed). But for what it's worth, if McCain were the one eviscerating the space program, I'd be just as upset.

Don QuiScottie said...

I loved the Moon program (as a boy) but I'm a robot fan now (loving the Mars Rover). I don't see the point in sending people anywhere up there at the moment. (Just wandering randomly through blogger with the "Next" button, as I like to do sometimes.)

Soozcat said...

Hi, Don. Thanks for visiting the neighborhood.

Although we don't *need* to send anyone to the moon, or to Mars, or anywhere else, one could argue there are many other optional things in life -- art, say, or music, or movies, or salted caramel chocolates -- that contribute hugely to its quality. Space exploration is, I think, among those non-essential but highly desirable items. And as our world's population continues to climb, I suspect the human race's ability to spread out from the globe and colonize other nearby celestial bodies will become increasingly important, even crucial.