Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tom Wolfe on the Death of NASA

This has been a good weekend for retrospectives on Apollo 11 and the space program. This Tom Wolfe editorial is worth reading. Wolfe gave us The Right Stuff: book and movie, both of which celebrated the early Mercury 7 space cowboys who engaged in Single Combat with the Soviet Union back in the day. I particularly like this excerpt from the editorial:

It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun.

Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
What NASA needs now is the power of the Word.

As a NASA writer, I have had to walk a fine line between the practical and the inspirational...the Word, as Wolfe would put it. The problem is that NASA cannot agree on what Word they want to share. "We do cool things! Get inspired by us!" only goes so far. Talk about high-tech jobs, and you hear complaints about pork and corporate welfare. Talk the far future and you get yawns (the sun won't bulk up into a red giant for 4-5 billion years). Talk too alarmist and you get incredulous laughter or bad science fiction movies ("We're gonna get killed by an asteroid like the dinosaurs!"). Talk too nationalistically and you get complaints about racism, imperialism, sexism, and all the other -isms that allegedly plague the Western World. Talk too capitalistically and you hear about exploitation of the workers and corporate greed and "wasting money on space when there are so many more important things to do here on Earth."

I know a lot about this because I've researched it, written it, and taken pains to overcome it. Tom Wolfe's Single Combat seems to be the only type of rhetoric that has worked in this country. It was used in a singular moment in history when technology, culture, and politics combined to convince a nation to try something spectacular. It was not the norm. So if the Single Combat narrative doesn't work anymore, what else will? Other things can, have, and should be tried:

  • We should search for other life in the cosmos and extend the life we know to other stars (von Braun's bridge to the stars).
  • We should use the resources of space--solar power, metals from asteroids, helium-3 fusion from the lunar crust or the atmospheres of the gas giants--to power our industries instead of polluting the Earth with hydrocarbons.
  • We should extend human civilization--people with children actually living and working in free, permanent communities beyond the Earth.
  • We should use the Moon and other locations in the solar system as places for preserving the life forms, cultural artifacts, and technological achievements of our civilization. These Vaults or treasure ships could let other races in the galaxy know that "We, too, once lived and had our fair time in the sun--remember us!"

All of these are cool, exciting projects that would inspire naturally without the sometimes-desperate "inspiration" messages that can wear thin after awhile. Will a robot or a better form of Teflon really "inspire" another generation of scientists or engineers? Will human beings doing these things in space inspire? One would hope.

But what are we bickering about instead? How to get there, and who will pay. America scrapped the Saturn IB and Saturn Vs or turned them into museum pieces. We are about to retire the Space Shuttle. And now we're arguing about what sorts of vehicles to buy when we cannot even agree upon where we wish to go, why, or what we're going to do when we get there. That direction is supposed to come from our political, technical, and cultural leaders. Our political leaders are more interested in spreading government largesse in the hopes of stimulating a shaky economy. Our technical leaders are absorbed in arguments over the rocket architectures--or not interested in human spaceflight at all. Our cultural leaders are more interested in studying the impacts of the Twitterverse than the space program that helped make that 'verse possible.

I'm convinced that if the nation was doing something important with its space program, the taxpayers wouldn't care about the how so much as the what and the why. Will the Augustine Panel address such issues? The Vision for Space Exploration gave NASA a nudge back in the direction of exploration for exploration's sake, but that's been a hard sell with a tough economy, with the discussion quickly devolving from purposes to hardware. So now we're building the hardware, and the nation was never told or has forgotten why. If it isn't for the purposes of Single Combat, why are we doing it? Would Saving the World or Saving Humanity be sufficient? Will the American public buy it? I can only hope so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you don't know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere. H. Kissinger