It’s the anniversary of NASA’s moon shot, which means we get yet another bitch session from a disappointed Great American about our shocking lack of colonies on other planets.
We remember a nearly identical whine from Tom Clancy some years ago, no doubt on another portentous anniversary — it might have been 1989 or 1999. Clancy made the same points in nearly the same way, but without cute references to Freud and orgasms.
Once again, the annual jeremiad against our laziness as a space power is heavy on macho bluster and short on logic.
This time, the rant comes via Tom Wolfe, and who can blame him. The celebrated writer gave us The Right Stuff, the romantic telling of he-men and their flying machines who broke the sound barrier and took us to earth orbit.
By now, Wolfe figures he should be enjoying the sight of regular flights to Jupiter’s moons, and Silent Running-like interstellar space colonies taking the gifts of humanity to other arms of the galaxy.
But no. Turns out sending Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and a handful of others to the surface of the moon was the apogee of our space program, and everything has been cratering since then.
“Forty years!” Wolfe laments, wondering where all the time has gone and why we aren’t shooting astronauts all over hell and gone by now.
Yes, ONLY forty years, you sartorial douche. That might be a long time for a single human being, but it’s nothing in the time scale of our species or even on the scale of our previous efforts at discovery.
Just to take an obvious example, after a Genoese dude named Corombo” discovered” the Americas for Europe in 1492, one can only imagine an impatient Wolfe berating the Mayflower’s passengers for taking so long to get their collective asses to Plymouth Bay.
“One hundred twenty eight years!” he might have bellowed.
Then, as now, the challenge was the same: great distance, technological backwardness, and a serious risk to life and limb.
In time, transatlantic travel became trivial. But that didn’t happen overnight simply because it had been done once, or even a hundred times.
In the case of space travel, the heroic accomplishment of a weeklong trip to the Moon — which lies about 240,000 miles away, a distance some of us attain in well-maintained automobiles — doesn’t make a two year round trip to Mars such a simple next step.
Worse, Wolfe trots out the dumbest of reasons that he thinks should motivate us to fire people into orbit on an accelerated schedule.
First, he tries to frighten us about the temporary habitability of the Earth, telling us that we have no choice but to colonize other worlds in order to save our species. And secondly, just like Clancy before him, he belittles the “robots” that we send out on a regular basis that cost a fraction of manned flights.
Yes, Wolfe is right: the Sun will eventually burn up, leaving our planet uninhabitable. But try not to panic: the Sun isn’t scheduled to do much out of the ordinary for several more billion years.
Sure, we could be wiped out sooner than that by nuclear winter, global warming, or a passing asteroid. But those are doomsday scenarios we can actually do something about short of a mass exodus from the planet, even if one were technologically feasible.
We suspect that dreams of planetary colonization are simply a product of human chauvinism.
The rest of the galaxy really doesn’t need the stain of humanity, and won’t notice in the least if tomorrow we winked out of existence.
What makes a lot more sense is staying put, taking better care of the planet we’re already on, and scanning the skies for signs that there are other — and perhaps far wiser — civilizations sending out radio signals for us to pick up. Such a discovery would dwarf anything that has been accomplished by history’s brave sailors and flinty fighter jocks. And all it takes to happen is a modest program with a meager budget and already-available technology. We won’t here go into the long, embarrassing history of our inability to fund this inexpensive and much-derided program.
As for those unmanned space robots, Wolfe makes the same mistake that Clancy did earlier by claiming that only human beings sent on location can actually take things in properly with their super-smart-vision, or something.
This is more macho posturing about cowboys in space, and it’s utter nonsense. Manned space travel’s benefit is primarily circular: we send people into space for long periods of time so that we can figure out how to send them up even longer.
The great scientific discoveries about our solar system, galaxy, and universe over the last fifty years weren’t radioed back by John Glenn or Sally Ride, as brave and skillful as those adventurers were.
It’s disheartening to see novelists like Clancy and Wolfe belittle the amazing unmanned projects — Voyager and the Hubble Space Telescope, to name two of the most successful — that have unlocked incredible insights into the cosmos we live in.
Sure, we’d love to see human beings land on Mars. And eventually, it will happen. It might make a lot of sense, however, to spend time and money developing a safer way into orbit first. A space elevator — although decades away, or longer — would trivialize moving people and equipment into orbit, making the other planets that much closer.
Wolfe will be dead by then. Us too, probably.
But so what? Where’s the hurry?
[ Tony Ortega is the Voice editor-in-chief. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: VoiceTonyO ]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2009