President Bush, a man who rarely journeyed outside the United States prior to taking office, has decided it’s imperative for Americans to return to the Moon and reach Mars. “The human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements,” he said in a speech on January 14. “We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves.”

While Bush’s announcement drew heated criticism, it has also re-enlivened America’s enthusiasm for Moon-schmaltz. During the Super Bowl pre-game show on February 1, Josh Groban sang “You Raise Me Up” to mark the first anniversary of the Columbia disaster, positioned beside seven jumpsuited NASA trainees. Midway through the song, a mammoth Moon surface was unveiled and a puffy astronaut clambered atop it to plant an American flag. Never has the peculiar link between space exploration and competitive sport been so clearly revealed. One can scarcely imagine another scientific accomplishment—say, Louis Pasteur discovering staphylococcus—re-enacted on the 50-yard line.

Watching the first, actual lunar landing in 1969, the poet W.H. Auden expressed similar suspicion. “It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for/so huge a phallic triumph,” he wrote. It matters to us only “because we like huddling in gangs and knowing/the exact time.” Even for Auden—often considered the first poet truly to feel at home in the 20th century—America’s engagement with the Moon is cause for cynicism. “Moon Landing” betrays the poet as an old man, pooh-poohing NASA from his parlor. “Our apparatniks will continue making/the usual squalid mess called History,” he wrote. But, “[u]nsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens.”

But Auden’s disenchantment can be seen as a warranted reaction to the Moon rhetoric of his time. Talking about the Moon in America has never been easy. From George W. Bush back to John F. Kennedy, the Moon has inspired in politicians precisely what it inspires in so many heartbroken teenagers: some really meaningless poetry.

President Kennedy’s speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, came on the heels of the American failure at the Bay of Pigs and a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The president, it seems, tried to distance himself from these failings with a little . . . space. “Now it is time to take longer strides,” he proclaimed, “time for a great new American enterprise.”

But in a speech that also disclosed ambitious plans for weather and communications satellites (and itemized their costs), Kennedy offered virtually no specifics as to what scientific or economic benefits might possibly come from plunking an American on the Moon. The lunar landing was pitched, primarily, as a key piece of warfare in the battle “between freedom and tyranny” against the Soviets. The message is clear: The pursuit of the Moon is an issue of gallantry and triumph, not practicality.

In a world where the politicians sound like poets and the poets sound like politicians, for practicality one must turn to a science-fiction writer. In an essay published six years after Kennedy’s speech, Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, addresses the Moon as “an asset in terms of actual hard cash—not the vast imponderables of adventure, romance, artistic inspiration, and scientific knowledge. The conquest of the Moon . . . can be justified to the cost accountants, not only to the scientists and the poets.”

With science behind him, Clarke first negates the popular Cold War view of the Moon as a tenable military outpost. (Why launch a missile at the Russians from 250,000 miles away when you can do it from a neighboring continent, using the curve of the earth to obscure it?) What the Moon does readily offer us is “nothing—millions of cubic miles of it”: a ready-made vacuum in which to conduct experiments, and perform many metallurgical and chemical processes which require one, including pharmaceutical production. Additionally, the Moon’s thin, weatherless atmosphere is a safe environment in which to build massive telescopes for cheap, without having to worry about damage from tropical storms.

Most importantly, writes Clarke, the Moon’s minimal gravity has an escape velocity of 5,200 miles per hour. This is about a fifth of Earth’s escape velocity. It is feasible to reach this speed on a land-based track, thus powering your ship with an adjoining, sustainable energy facility. Costly rocket fuel need not be used at all. Moon-mining, lunar catapults, dark-side communications outposts—Clarke’s moon is a hotbed of economic opportunity. He titles his essay, dryly, “The Uses of the Moon.”

Almost 40 years later, Clarke’s science may not always hold up, but his vision does. It is, in fact, front-page news. Bush’s Moon speech referenced (albeit quickly) some of Clarke’s same fiscal and scientific advantages—namely, gainful lunar mining and the use of the Moon as America’s “launching point for missions beyond.”

Bush, compared to Kennedy, may express slightly more utilitarian objectives for the Moon, but overall, his tenor reaffirms that the prime importance of space exploration to the American public is still poetic in nature. The appeal of space is not in what we might find out (the domain of science) but in what we won’t ever quite know (the domain of poetry). It is an adventure, likely to “boggle the imagination” and “test our limits to dream.” The president assured us we will make many important scientific discoveries. “We don’t know yet what those breakthroughs will be,” he said, “but we can be certain they’ll come, and that our efforts will be repaid many times over.” Furthermore, space exploration under Bush will “inspire our young people to study math, and science, and engineering, and create a new generation of innovators and pioneers.” None of this, of course, is definitively untrue. But such agile spin allows Bush to cast a determination to explore strange worlds light years away as a feel-good, election-year message to Middle America.

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.

“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.