I just came across this beautiful and brilliant op-ed in the New York Times by Tom Wolfe about the deeper meaning and purpose of the Apollo moon landing missions – and indeed everything NASA has accomplished since then.
I highly recommend reading the entire article, but here’s his argument in a nutshell. The idea to put a man on the moon, as we all know, was fundamentally driven by the ideological and military contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Once this contest had been won (with Apollo 11, 40 years ago)… it had been won. Now what? NASA engineers, politicians, and citizens started to wonder what the point of all of this was.
Wolfe argues that human space travel has been going through an existential crisis ever since (with the exception of the Chinese, perhaps, who still try to boost their national ego). Why spend all this money on a space station, not to mention a 10 billion dollars a year mission to mars program?
And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?
The problem for Wolfe is that NASA never hired enough philosophers to inject legitimacy and meaning into space travel (the last one they had was Wernher von Braun, a “former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent”). And so with nobody telling us that space travel is there to migrate all of human kind away from this slowly (or not so slowly) degenerating planet, we just remain puzzled why on earth (no pun intended) it’s so important to have some dude from Florida (or whereever) walk around on the surface of Mars.
May I add to this that something else has changed since the late 1960s. I think we’re also not as crazy anymore about human progress based on technological inventions (i.e. machines). When everyone’s talking about organic food, energy efficiency, and climate change, it’s just not fun to think about shooting rockets into orbit, is it?