Is poetic license enough of a reason to explore the empty frontier of outer space?

The president's grandiose description of his plan severs it from reality and leaves it floating in the vacuum of sheer possibility. The program's timetable has the same effect. True, it's tough to manage a complete scientific revolution within an eight-year presidency. But Kennedy pledged to put a man on the Moon—something that had never been done before—within nine years. Bush pledged to return humans to the Moon (something we've done numerous times) in 10. He offered no date for a human landing on Mars.

In contrast, it was precisely Kennedy's gall and hurried timetable that demanded his speech be more up-front about the sacrifices involved. There was hard work to be done, and it necessitated temporarily playing down the poetry. Though Kennedy glossed over the concrete advantages of going, he was certainly in touch with the possible drawbacks. He stressed that "new money" alone would not do the job. Americans would also have to endure a diversion of resources "from other important activities where they are already thinly spread." Furthermore, "[W]e cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel." Kennedy sounds less like a president than a plant foreman rolling up his sleeves.

But for Bush, space exploration is more recreation than industry—the stuff of pre-game shows. We do it because it "lifts our national spirit." It presents not great sacrifices—he asked Congress for a cool billion without acknowledging where it might come from, or even that, wherever it is to come from, it will surely be missed—but only "great risks." Bush solemnly mentioned the Columbia crew, but stopped short of acknowledging that such a disaster may happen again.

W. H. Auden: "It's natural the Boys should whoop it up for/so huge a phallic triumph."
W. H. Auden: "It's natural the Boys should whoop it up for/so huge a phallic triumph."

"What does it period?" asked Auden of the Apollo landing. "We were always . . . more facile/at courage than kindness." Is it any wonder that, faced with our politicians' lunar bravado, at least one respectable artist's reaction to the Moon is glib cynicism? It is, after all, a common reaction of any artist to that which he loathes most: bad art. But, with respect to the Moon, Auden lacked something Arthur C. Clarke did not: information. And this information spawned vision and a certain giddiness. The advent of man had the power, in Clarke's words, to "awaken a sleeping moon." In Auden's universe, it could only kill it.

Auden was not alone. In July 1969, The New York Times celebrated Neil Armstrong's one small step with a supplement entitled "Man and the Moon." The section features profiles and high school photos of the astronauts, congratulatory ads from hotel chains and furniture stores, and a symposium of celebrity opinions. Pablo Picasso, visionary artist, had this to say: "It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don't care."

Jon Mooallem's poetry criticism has appeared recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Poetry Magazine.

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