So, not much blogging because … not much has been happening. Deliberately so, really; after an eventful year, I was ready to not have much happen. I’ve been reminding myself that I could blog more about that road trip that I only blogged the first three days of, but the memories are fading rapidly already. Truthfully, though there was naturally much more incident on the trip than there is now, not a whole lot happened then either. There were no great adventures, epiphanies, or paradigm shifts. It was a journey whose main purpose seemed to be in leaving where I came from.
Which brings me to the subject of men on the moon. The fortieth anniversary has caused a number of commenters to wonder why manned space travel died. I was wondering the same thing myself a couple years ago, when I saw the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. The moon landing happened before I was born, but I do remember the ’70s well enough to recall the sense of inevitability that there would be more space travel, and the almost imperceptible way that it faded out.
Unlike Eve, I don’t think the Challenger accident was that chastening. The space program had already killed people before Apollo 11, and everyone knew it was dangerous. That was, if anything, part of the glamor. I suspect that the unanimous awe about the moon landing came from a convergence of different interests — cold warriors, techno-utopians, wannabe conquistadors, engineers, scientists and so on — which all fell away for different reasons.
From the point of view of a moderate sci-fi buff — a non-trivial portion of space-travel supporters, I would say — probably the biggest discouragement to space travel is the growing sense that there isn’t much life out there, if any. The first fiction writers to imagine going to the moon told stories of meeting aliens. As that came to seem less likely, Mars and Venus became hotbeds of extraterrestrial civilization. Now those places look barren and hostile to life; and while Titan and Europa are becoming the next likely suspects, this is getting to feel like searching the haystack for the legendary sewing implement.
A few years ago, a New Yorker reviewer blamed the demise of the space program, at least partly, on Neil Armstrong’s Vulcan-like personality. “Did anyone have the right to be so little changed by the voyage as Armstrong seems to have been?” he asks. It’s an odd question, since being changed wasn’t really something Armstrong had control over. Instead, one might as well blame the moon for being so friendly to characters like Neil Armstrong — that is, a great place for engineers and physicists and not so much for humanitarians or poets.
Curiously enough, Tom Wolfe recently suggested that the emptiness of space is the very reason to go there. NASA’s problem, he wrote, is its lack of philosophers. So what would a philosophical argument for visiting other planets be? He paraphrases Wernher von Braun:
Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.
Personally, I don’t think the Nazism and the accent were the only reasons this argument didn’t catch on. Most earthlings, I would venture to say, don’t believe we’re the only sentient creatures in the entire universe: not only are there still believers in extraterrestrial life, but also in interdimensional beings, spirits, angels, demons, and while we’re at it, God. Moreover, even if we are alone in the universe, that doesn’t necessarily lead to an obligation (to what? to whom?) to go to enormous lengths to keep life going beyond its natural endpoint. One could just as easily conclude that six billion years is an awfully good run.
One thing I remember noticing, as I watched In the Shadow of the Moon, was how varied the reactions of the astronauts were to their experience. One became a born-again Christian, another agnostic; one kept pushing for more space exploration, while another concluded the tiny fragility of Earth meant we should focus all our effort on preserving it. In other words, they pretty much wound up along the normal spectrum of American beliefs. Going to the moon changed most of them more than it changed Armstrong, but it did not advance them to some new phase of human enlightenment.
Traveling a long way from home is like that. From a distance, the problems that once consumed you can look smaller, and the things you were once attached to can look less important. But sooner or later, you have to settle again and live among people on a human scale. That place where you can see your world as a pale blue dot is not the realm of the living, but the land of the dead.