Abandoning the space race

Eben Carle Contributor
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When archaeologists unearth the relics of the American Century, the space race will be our Holy Grail. Space was our New World. In 1962, when John F. Kennedy declared “we choose to go to the moon,” he encouraged every American to look up to the stars and summon the spirit of Columbus staring across the Atlantic. During the Apollo program every American taxpayer became a deckhand on the voyage to the moon. It was a journey that created the world we now live in, spawning GPS systems, plastics, alloy metals, cordless power tools and cancer detecting CAT scans

Our trip to space also distinguished America from its predecessors. European Empires once drew maps with an eye on colonialism, dividing the world into arbitrary national borders. With a picture taken from the moon, America provided the world with a new map: one planet without boundaries.

This administration’s budget has cancelled the shuttle program—ending human space flight—while also killing the shuttle’s much vaunted replacement: the Constellation Program.

Under the proposal, if Americans wants to go to space in the visible future they will have to catch a ride with the Russians or Chinese.

In a speech scheduled to take place in Florida on April 15, the administration will provide justification for ending fifty years of accumulated wisdom. A generation back this would have been a hard sell. This is the equivalent of hanging a foreclosure sign on a vital piece of the American imagination while depriving future generations of the discoveries that accompany a sustained public investment in science.

The space shuttle would cost $2.4 billion per year to continue flying and development of the Constellation Program would have averaged just over $10 billion each year. To suggest that cancelling the space program is a matter of “fiscal responsibility” is difficult to accept from a government that squandered $787 billion in stimulus funding while pushing a $1 trillion health care overhaul upon a country that doesn’t want it.

It’s about priorities and vision. This is a classic case of a generation not knowing how to manage what it has inherited.

Abandoning fifty years of space leadership, something that every president has advanced since Eisenhower, reflects this generation’s changing view of technology. Our lives have gotten smaller, narrower in scope and individualistic. When we look to technologies we see a crutch rather than a catapult. The technologies that pervade our lives reflect the mundane ambitions of consumer culture. We have iPhone applications that make restaurant reservations from the palm of your hand; other applications tell you where you parked your car, saving you the trouble of having to think. We have virtual reality platforms to entertain video game enthusiasts. Each of these consumer trinkets was made possible, ironically, as spinoffs of the space race.

But this generation does not see space in broad terms. We are only interested in the space that resides between our brains and the latest gadgets in our hand. The result is that we use technology not as an extension of our imagination, but as a replacement for it.

On election night in 2008, throngs of people congregated in Grant Park to hear the president-elect speak. Commentators noted wistfully that President Obama was the first post-Baby Boomer President. The intent was to make us embrace another moment of manufactured sentiment, to elicit the collective national sigh: “Well good! We weathered the generation that brought us Woodstock, antidepressants, ‘The Big Chill’ and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.”

The Boomers may have tested the durability of America, both inside and outside the White House, but at least the Boomers had imagination. They grew up on the knee of someone who loved America. They saw the first television images of Neil Armstrong bouncing upon the surface of the moon as neighbors uttered, with a new kind of meaning, “My God.” It was a moment for all of humanity, delivered by the will of the American people.

Today, yes, another generation has taken over. Now we have a president who insists upon carrying a BlackBerry, but can do without the space program.

Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.