July 20, 2011

Moon Landing Anniversary and the Decline of Wonder

After the American Century

I vividly recall where I was and who I was with on this day, July 20, in 1969 when Niel Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Like many Americans, I had mixed feelings: immense curiosity about what the astronauts might find balanced against the sense that the billions of dollars might better be spent on social programs. It was the heyday of the Counterculture, and like many other students I was not a fan of military spending or government science programs. The astronauts were like big boy scouts, with their crew cut hair, bland speech patterns, and conservative clothing. Richard Nixon loved them, and missed no opportunity to be photographed with them. Even so, for those who disliked Nixon it was impossible to remain unmoved by the moon landing. For the first time, human beings would walk in a place outside the earth. What might they find? Would they survive? Would there be any trace of life, perhaps a fossil?

Each subsequent visit to the moon drew less public attention. Everyone remembers Neil Armstrong, but who can name the fourth or fifth man to walk on the moon? Forty-two years later, the space program is a mere shadow of its former self, and no one has been to the moon for a long time. The space shuttle program is ending even as I write these lines. It was plagued by delays and several fatal disintegrations. It failed to become a reliable and inexpensive shuttle bus to the stars, and there is nothing to take its place.

In retrospect, the space program was driven by the Cold War. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the "space race" was over, and Congress reduced funding for high profile missions. Now the US and Russia cooperate in running and manning the space station, and the only way to get there is via a Soviet-era Soyuz rocket launched in Central Asia. Millions of Americans used to attend Apollo rocket launches in Florida and space shuttle landings in the arid west. Clearly that patriotic tradition cannot easily be transplanted to Kazakhstan.

For much of US history, Americans found various large technological projects inspiring. In the early decades of the nineteenth century canals were the rage, followed by railroads from c. 1830 to 1870. Later they embraced great bridges, then skyscrapers, then the automobile and so on down to the space program. However, as I discussed at length in American Technological Sublime, this tradition has attenuated in the last decades of the twentieth century. The ambivalent feelings I had about the space program in 1969 were part of a national trend. People no longer found big technology a compelling rallying point for the nation.

Today the technologies that excite the public are miniaturized not monumental, and they are not national but personal possessions – ipads, cell phones, portable computers, and the like. A consumer's sublime has triumphed.

As in 1969, I still would like to see more spending on social programs, including medical care, education, and the like. But I can now see that this was not to be the historical alternative to spending money on NASA. Rather, Americans deplore almost all forms of government spending and resist taxation. The money not spent on space exploration is hardly going to welfare programs.

The moon landing, that can now be viewed on YouTube, briefly united Americans in a shared wonder, but the space program no longer serves that purpose. Nor, it seems, does anything else.