I don’t have much of the explorer’s instinct. I’ve never been out of the country–well, to Canada a couple of times, but that doesn’t really count. When I travel I collect unpleasant experiences the way some people collect postcards. I get migraines. I get nausea. The notion of traveling anywhere without adequate bathrooms makes me quiver. Hell, sometimes it takes some doing just to get me out of the apartment.
But I’ve always had a bit of sympathy for the flyboys in the original space program, so lovingly described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. Unlike the high-speed pilots of their day, the early astronauts didn’t have to do anything in their little cockpits besides sit there like complacent monkeys; the computer handled the navigation. All they had to do was try not to throw up or pass out. Given the perils of acceleration, deceleration, too much gravity, and none at all, this was harder than it sounds, so their training included a simulation of the most sadistic amusement-park ride anyone could ever have imagined. They would emerge from being mechanically discombobulated in these training modules looking very green indeed, sprinting to the bathroom to erupt like a can of cola shaken by a kid. A lot of my trips are like that.
As Neil Steinberg suggests in Complete & Utter Failure, an engaging reflection on the history of near misses, explorers are often less interested in getting places than in having a difficult time getting there. It’s the challenge that draws them. Those who climbed Mount Everest weren’t interested in the view; the real lure was that others had died trying to make it to the top. Steinberg remarks, only half facetiously, that anything can be an adventure if it’s dangerous enough. “If Disneyland were located at the South Pole and hundreds trekked across the frozen Antarctic to reach it, only to be decapitated on ‘Space Mountain’ or maimed by the vicious, exposed machinery in ‘It’s a Small World,’ then going to Disneyland would no longer be viewed as a dreary, obligatory descent into cultural fatuousness, but as a rare adventure and a preening mark of manhood.”
For a long time space exploration has been a bit like this: it’s not the idea of new horizons, of new discoveries that draws scientists and politicians, despite all the lip service given to such a quest. It’s the difficulty and even dangerousness of the enterprise. Scientists remembering the first moon shots don’t talk much about the moon itself; they wax nostalgic about the challenge of getting there. Not surprisingly, the most potent metaphor used to describe the early days of space exploration–the “space race”–evokes not the voyages of Columbus but the spectacle of highly trained athletes competing on a track.
Yet back in the 60s, when there was still a faint chance we might actually discover something interesting out there, the enterprise still had a certain glamour to it. (Though when John Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade he didn’t really expect anyone would be there to greet the visitors from earth; he was more worried about the Red menace.) But now that we realize we’re not going to find any aliens paddling gondolas through the canals of Mars, we can’t even pretend to be interested in discovering new lives and new civilizations. Space exploration has become merely an exercise in getting to the top.
And the more we know about the top, the harder it is to have any interest in getting there. Aside from our own, the planets in this solar system are no great prizes. They’re just big, lifeless rocks in the sky. If you want to see interesting planets you’d do better to rent an old science fiction film. Put another man on the moon? A man on Mars? We might as well send someone to stand on a rock in the middle of South Dakota. It would be cheaper too.
The reality of space has long lagged behind the space of our imaginations. Science fiction writers can always conjure up technical solutions to our galactic isolation: the warp drive, navigable “wormholes,” hyperspace. In Star Trek every planet the Enterprise visited seemed to be a Class M planet, with an atmosphere and climate that was perfect for human visitors. With a warp drive one has the luxury of choosing.
We’re stuck with the moon–a pretty sight in the night sky, but hardly a nice place to visit. We’re stuck with too-hot Venus and with a handful of other planets too big or too cold or too far away to even think about exploring anytime soon. It’s even hard to get worked up about exploring Mars, since we already know what’s there. Nothing. Not even a fungus or two to keep the biologists happy. Not even the fabled canals. Just cold dust and rocks.
Steinberg points out that in 1975 the Chinese, for no reason fathomable to anyone but themselves, decided to make yet another ascent of Everest. The best title they could come up with for a book describing the climb was Another Ascent of the World’s Highest Peak. Doesn’t exactly have the ring of greatness. No wonder no one reacts with enthusiasm anymore to proposals to send Yet Another Ship to the Stars.
To those in the space-exploration business–NASA scientists, professional futurologists–it’s been obvious for a long time that the party’s over. So it’s hardly surprising to find that a new book on the future of space exploration has the tentative title Where Next, Columbus? Where next, indeed? And why? These questions haunt this colorful coffee-table book edited by Valerie Neal, a curator of space history at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. But despite essays by some of the best-known and most perceptive observers of science and space exploration, including Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, they remain unsatisfactorily answered. Which is perhaps the best we can expect.
This isn’t the first time explorers have run out of things to explore. In the first age of exploration, the time of Columbus and Magellan, explorers actually ran into other people and sometimes even learned from them. But by the time they got to the antarctic in the 19th century, exploration was driven by a logic of its own. “The heroic age of Antarctic exploration proceeded in defiance of the natural order of geophysics,” writes Stephen Pyne in an unsettling essay in Where Next, Columbus? “The explorer was less the rational emissary of science and empire than an Ahab maddened by his pursuit of the white whale.The ice field that composed Antarctica steadily stripped away the kind of data, experiences and referents that discovery had become accustomed to…rich on the outside, barren toward the center; a journey to the source meant that there was more and more of less and less, until in the end there was only ice and self. Expeditions scrounged for survival. Dialogues with the Earth became soliloquies with the self. There were no native peoples to serve as guides, no alternative moral order with which to contend. There was only ice.” One might as well have climbed into an icebox.
Back then the thrill of the chase was still enough. But in the modern age, with its suspicion of heroic gestures, Pyne writes, “exploration [has] lacked intellectual vitality.” And so at the height of the hype about its “splendid technology,” the race into space began to degenerate into what he calls “nothing more than military adventurism or the intellectual equivalent of stock-car racing, a form of communal recreation rather than of collective curiosity.”
In space, at least in the parts we can reach with current technology, “no one could live off the land, go native, absorb the art and mythology of an alien consciousness, experience an alternative moral realm,” he writes. “There would be no one to talk to except ourselves…discovery inexorably becomes a colossal exercise in self-reference and self-reflection.”
The editors chose to follow up this quote with a two-page spread of an early moon walk. After reading Pyne’s reflections on the solipsism of space exploration, it’s amazing how empty the old photos look. One man, separated from his environment by a carefully designed suit, walks seemingly aimlessly over a barren landscape. There’s nothing majestic about the scene. In fact, it seems rather sad.
If Pyne’s essay is about disenchantment, the essay immediately following, by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, is an attempt at reenchantment, a wide-eyed celebration of the wonder of discovery. Schmitt can’t provide a rational explanation for the appeal of space exploration and doesn’t even try. “‘Being there’ adds the human element to life’s events,” he concludes. “The desire to ‘be there’ will continue to drive young people away from the established paths of history on Earth and to the planets and the stars. Yes, they probably will follow the examples of previous explorers and offer ‘practical’ or ‘pragmatic’ reasons to rationalize going ‘up into space in ships’–a route to the Indies, first to reach the poles, beat them to the moon…but it still will be a rationalization for the basic human desire to ‘be there.'”
In this day and age “being there” is hardly a compelling reason to spend billions sending a few people into space. If some eccentric millionaire wants to spend his money clambering up the side of a mountain and risking his life in the process, why not? (It’s not likely he’ll spend the money on anything more worthwhile anyway, and there’s always the chance he’ll plunge to his death, ridding humanity of one millionaire.) And if some eccentric millionaire wants to send himself into space I’m not going to stop him. But when politicians are talking about cutbacks and workfare, few voters are likely to look kindly on their tax dollars financing the temporary exhilaration of another Harrison Schmitt.
The extent of the solipsism of contemporary imaginings about space is nowhere made more clear than in Thomas Lovejoy’s essay on space colonization, a transparent projection of the most adolescent of fantasies. Lovejoy speaks casually of transforming entire planets for human use, of “terraforming” on a scale imagined so far only in science fiction. I can think only of Lyndon LaRouche and his plans to perk up the American economy by sending men to Mars. Lovejoy acknowledges that some more practical sorts might look on the whole endeavor less as “a feat of imagination [than] of arrogance,” as an “exercise [in] escapism, a waste of money, a way to ignore problems grown egregious at home, and a flight from responsibility.” That’s putting it mildly.
It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of Lovejoy’s vision. When I was in sixth grade I discovered a book in the school library about space stations. It was, I believe, some kind of official NASA publication, filled with the slick pictures and blandly optimistic prose characteristic of all propaganda. I checked it out again and again, captivated by the clean, well-ordered universe it depicted.
I wasn’t interested in the idea of space exploration, and I never thought to look at any of the books detailing this or that lunar exploration. Rather I was interested in the idea of space as an escape from the confusion of the real world, by the idea of creating a small, controllable utopia in a space capsule far away. I spent hours drawing diagrams of big, spinning wheels in space, of hollowed-out asteroids, of giant spheres.
Science fiction is pretty transparently a projection of our own fantasies, an opportunity to imagine what the world would be like if we gave this or that human tendency free rein to design a world of its own. It’s a perfectly understandable, even admirable, imaginative endeavor. But if the only reason we can think of to go into space is to spark someone’s imagination, then I begin to wonder. Hell, there are cheaper forms of inspiration. A good book, for example. A model train set. A school lunch.
Complete & Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops by Neil Steinberg, Doubleday, $17.50.
Where Next, Columbus? The Future of Space Exploration edited by Valerie Neal, Oxford University Press, $35.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.