Tuesday, February 04, 2003


Here is an excerpt from the introduction to Susan Faludi’s seminal work (at least, I hope it will be ten years from now) on the social construction of American masculinity, “Stiffed” (so I guess that “seminal” is the right word one way or the other); it is a sort of composite account of a father and his son in the late 1950s sharing an important bonding-moment of reverence, astonishment, and awe while watching an early American satellite fly overhead:

The father touches the boy’s shoulder and directs his vision to a faraway glimmer. The boy looks up, knowing that his father is pointing out more than just an object; it is a beacon of pride and secret knowledge, a paternal gift rocketing him into a future his father had helped him to launch. At first, all he sees is the blanket of stars spreading out cold and vast between the trees. But then, there it is at last, a pinpoint of light crawling across the firmament, infinitesimally tiny, impossibly bright.

She really nailed it for me. That is, when I read this passage for the first time, I thought, “that’s me and Dad,” even though my moment was in the early 1970s instead of the 50s, and we were most likely watching TV rather than looking at the sky, coverage of Skylab or of a later moonshot or some such.

NASA, for at least two generations of Americans, probably three or four, has been symbolic of everything about our country that is good. It has meant and, for many, still means knowledge, science, bravery, exploration in an old world sense, international cooperation and friendly competition, racial harmony, hope. NASA means working toward the uplifting future offered by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

I am very cynical, disillusioned about much that was taught to me about America when I was a boy. But space exploration, in principle, remains unsullied to me. NASA, while certainly imperfect, still makes my heart swell with humanistic pride. I know how silly it sounds, but I still believe it with every ounce of my being: man’s destiny is in space; man’s destiny is to understand the universe.

I know that there are reasonable criticisms of NASA. Project Censored has shown how every shuttle launch is an environmental disaster. Singer/poet Gil Scott-Heron best articulates another major criticism, that space money should be better used, in his poem “Whitey on the Moon." Also, the military brass and other hawks hungrily eye space technology and the strategic advantages of space flight (a tension that has existed since NASA’s early days).

These problems, however, can and hopefully will be solved. Space exploration as a concept is not a problem in and of itself. Scientists and engineers can overcome the ecological issues. There is plenty of money in America for the sick, hungry, and homeless: take it from the military, not from NASA. And speaking of the military, they will use ANY suitable technology to make killing more efficient—war is the evil, not space.

When I woke up last Saturday and heard the awful news, all I could think of was what happened seventeen years ago. I was a senior in high school and I had to cut class to watch news coverage of the Challenger disaster. The cluttered and cramped audio-visual storage room of our school’s library had a television showing the explosion again and again and again. There were seven or eight of us watching, a crowd in the small room. I was stunned, unable to know what to think or feel, much like I had been five years earlier when I had heard about John Lennon’s murder.

But my close friend, Matt, standing beside me, understood immediately. He cried. He knew.

This is how I have always remembered the loss of the Challenger. This memory, not the loss of the Columbia itself, is what made me cry last Saturday. It is truly sad to lose such brave, hard-working, brilliant individuals. Their deaths, however, are charged with symbolic importance that exceeds the value of any individual American life. When our astronauts die in the line of duty, optimism and hope, as aspects of national identity, are dealt a savage, brutal blow.

So the real question here is not, “does this mean that we should abandon space exploration?” Rather, the question should be, “when are we going to get really, really serious about traveling to the stars?” I am happy to note that most polls are indicating that the national will is to continue exploring space.

But I say it’s time to expand, not simply continue, mankind’s greatest quest.