Today the moon landing turns 40. NASA and space enthusiasts seem to have hit a mid-life crisis that’s playing out in the media for all to see.
“Honey, I need this hot camero to impress potential employers and to return a sense of awe and wonder to my paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Ok, it’s also my 40th birthday today, so?”
For NASA’s “midlife crisis,” it wants to buy a fancy space vehicle (well, it wants us to buy it for them, but don’t worry, we can sit in it, maybe), and then it wants to take it on a two-year road trip to Mars.
Why Mars? Apparently, shuttle trips to restock the space station with freeze-dried ice cream have failed to capture the imagination of television viewers. With little public interest in NASA’s missions (or maybe, its ‘mission’), Congress has little interest in giving them any heavenly budget boosts.
The solution? Put handsome space cowboys back in the cockpit, send them somewhere we’ve never been before (Mars happens to be the next big rock out), and voila! Exciting protagonists, more media coverage, a big boost in launch coverage ratings, and NASA’s budget hits the stratosphere!
“If NASA has challenged the Taliban to a first-to-Mars, winner-takes-all contest, they’re still waiting for Mullah Mohammed Omar to respond.”
Is that too cynical? Space exploration surely transcends the banalities of human war and credit crises. A Mars mission is an insurance policy against hard times here on Earth. Just in case the share price of the American Way of Life continues to slide, in case we fail to meet the challenges of health care and global warming, we’ll still be able to put our woes aside and look up at the stars with wonderment: “I wonder how many more months they have before they get there? I wonder what movies they brought on board to pass the time? I wonder if I’ll have to move to Quebec to find a job?”
But still, space exploration is one of the few things that can truly unite humanity, from cynical iPod-connected teens in the Mall of America to Masai warriors on the plains of the Serengeti. Well, could unite humanity, for a moment, if the Mars program produces new “spin-off” technologies like television sets so that Masai warriors and Amazonian tribespeople can watch the Mars landing too.
It’s not really about “shared humanity” and universal urges to look to the stars. Even the NASA-boosters who say that it is soon fall back on national pride and apple pie. “I hope we do make it to Mars,” says a columnist in the American Spectator; “I hope we’re first.”
The “we” is clearly not humanity.
Of course, the same nationalism drove the moon mission. The Soviets had already put men into orbit, who — we were to believe — were looking down on the U.S. as it whizzed by underneath, laughing at us in their Russian accents. We had to answer back.
I’m glad NASA did go to the moon — for the science that resulted and for the transcendent experience of looking back on our own planet. But the reason NASA went to the moon — what actually purchased the research and the rocket fuel — was the urge to show them we could.
All the while, the Soviets were building bigger and better missiles designed for more “terrestrial” targets.
Kind of puts a damper on the whole “humanity and mankind” story, doesn’t it? “One small step for man. One giant leap for national self-confidence and inter-state Cold War one-upmanship.”
But how do you stoke nationalist rivalries in this post-Cold War era? If NASA has challenged the Taliban to a first-to-Mars, winner-takes-all contest, they’re still waiting for Mullah Mohammed Omar to respond.
This “lone superpower” status is lonelier and less super than anyone imagined. With no big rival to spar with and blame for our shortcomings, our leaders bear the responsibility for tackling national problems themselves. Twenty years after the Soviet Union dissolved, our government has still failed to tackle domestic threats like the health care crisis or global warming.
It’s no surprise NASA feels a little insecure 40 years after sending men to the moon. But it’s not NASA’s midlife crisis — it’s ours. We can dream about other worlds when we gaze up at the stars, but it’s time we buckle down and work hard on this one for a while.