We were the space kids, and maybe that started with The Honeymooners back in 1956. The family would gather around the little black and white television screen in the big wooden cabinet to watch that show. Ralph Kramden, the crude and rather oblivious bus driver, played by Jackie Gleason, was always threatening to beat the crap out of his acerbic, wise-cracking wife, Alice, played by Audrey Meadows. He’d raise his fist and the line was always the same – “To the moon, Alice, to the moon!” You knew he’d never even try to hit her – he was the essence of ineffectual frustration and just a blow-hard, and Alice knew it – so it was funny, back then. Attitudes toward domestic violence have changed since then.
But it was a good line. We all used it. It was an ironic way to tell someone they were a fool, and they deserved a good slap upside the head, but you really weren’t going to do that. Hey, we’re all frustrated. Just like Ralph and Alice, both sides understood that. No one was going to hit anyone. No one was going to the moon.
But back then the moon was on everyone’s mind. There was always some b-level science fiction movie playing, and that started with the 1950 film Destination Moon. There seemed to be hundreds of others – space invaders or off to other planets or a mixture of both, like This Island Earth (1955) – quaint now, but when you’re eight or nine years old, pretty cool.
Then came October 4, 1957 – the Russians launched Sputnik. It was all real. And America was in trouble. The Space Race had started without us, and we were way, way behind. They had a satellite in orbit and we had… nothing.
School changed – it was all math and science, and all of us ten-year-old kids wanted to be engineers and scientists and all that sort of thing. Maybe you had to be there to understand how quickly things changed, and how “to the moon” now meant something else entirely. I remember the first time I saw myself on television. Along with my buddies, attending a Saturday class at the local planetarium on space flight and rockets and all that sort of thing, and the local television station covering it with a film crew and lights and microphones – and I was the kid in the shot with the guest of honor, Wernher von Braun himself. He pointed to something on a little model he was holding, I smiled, and I think he tousled my hair. When I saw the clip on the news I thought I looked stupid. Maybe that was the idea.
But such things stick with you. Thirty years later I was working for Hughes Aircraft, for the Space and Communications Group – the guys who invented the geosynchronous communications satellite, Syncom, in 1963, followed by the first geosynchronous weather satellite, ATS-1, in 1966, the same year their Surveyor 1 made the first soft landing on the moon. And they built Pioneer Venus in 1978 that did the radar mapping of that awful place, and the Galileo probe that was off to hang around Jupiter in the nineties. They’d built forty percent of commercial satellites in service worldwide. My task, or one of them, was to produce a film, a history of all this, and part of that was interviewing the two guys who came up with the first geosynchronous communications satellite that actually worked. They told tales of chatting with Arthur C. Clarke, who had come up with the idea in the late forties (Wireless World, 1946, and his vision of “the world’s tallest transmitting tower”) – and figuring out how to actually pull it off. The script practically wrote itself, and the storyboarding was a breeze. This was cool. Wernher von Braun had had me all wrong.
But here it is, many, many years later, and it’s not that cool any longer. We got to the moon – exactly forty years ago.
Now what? What happened to all the manic enthusiasm of the space kids?
The American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean – okay if I add “godlike”? – quest in the history of the world, died in infancy at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969, the moment the foot of Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon.
The moon landing ended the space program, and like all of us space kids, Wolfe had expected something else:
Like many another youngster at that time, or maybe retro-youngster in my case, I was fascinated by the astronauts after Apollo 11. I even dared to dream of writing a book about them someday. If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity. Poor guy’s bucket’s got a hole in it.
Why, putting a man on the Moon was just the beginning, the prelude, the prologue! The Moon was nothing but a little satellite of Earth. The great adventure was going to be the exploration of the planets … Mars first, then Venus, then Pluto. Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? NASA would figure out their slots in the schedule in due course. In any case, we Americans wouldn’t stop until we had explored the entire solar system. And after that … the galaxies beyond.
And he adds some interesting historical detail – not only has NASA been doing fly-bys of Mars since the mid-seventies, and has landers there now, that was always the idea:
Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who had come over to our side in 1945, had been designing a manned Mars project from the moment he arrived. In 1952 he published his Mars Project as a series of graphic articles called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon” in Collier’s magazine. It created a sensation. He was front and center in 1961 when NASA undertook Project Empire, which resulted in working plans for a manned Mars mission.
But that was not to be, as NASA “had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.” After Wernher von Braun, or other than Wernher von Braun, we never had any of those:
From the moment the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit around the Earth in 1957, everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest. At first there was alarm over the Soviets’ seizure of the “strategic high ground” of space. They were already up there – right above us! They could now hurl thunderbolts down whenever and wherever they wanted. And what could we do about it? Nothing. …
But Wolfe points out that was absurd:
Physicists were quick to point out that nobody would choose space as a place from which to attack Earth. The spacecraft, the missile, the Earth itself, plus the Earth’s own rotation, would be traveling at wildly different speeds upon wildly different geometric planes. You would run into the notorious “three body problem” and then some. You’d have to be crazy. The target would be untouched and you would wind up on the floor in a fetal ball, twitching and gibbering.
Had they thought about that things might have gone differently, and really, they should have worried about “the rockets that had lifted the Soviets’ five-ton manned ships into orbit” – those could lob nuclear warheads any place on Earth.
But they didn’t see that either. It became something else entirely, and Wolfe takes us back to the White House in April 1961, Kennedy consults with NASA’s administrator, James Webb, and Webb’s deputy, Hugh Dryden:
The president was in a terrible funk. He kept muttering: “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody – anybody … There’s nothing more important.” He kept saying, “We’ve got to catch up.” Catching up had become his obsession. He never so much as mentioned the rockets.
Dryden said that, frankly, there was no way we could catch up with the Soviets when it came to orbital flights. A better idea would be to announce a crash program on the scale of the Manhattan Project, which had produced the atomic bomb. Only the aim this time would be to put a man on the Moon within the next 10 years.
Barely a month later Kennedy made his famous oration before Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” He neglected to mention Dryden.
Kennedy had fallen into a trap, thinking of this as what Wolfe calls an oddly ancient and archaic form of military contest, single combat:
The best known of all single combats was David versus Goliath. Before opposing armies clashed in all-out combat, each would send forth its “champion,” and the two would fight to the death, usually with swords. The victor would cut off the head of the loser and brandish it aloft by its hair.
The deadly duel didn’t take the place of the all-out battle. It was regarded as a sign of which way the gods were leaning. The two armies then had it out on the battlefield … unless one army fled in terror upon seeing its champion slaughtered. There you have the Philistines when Little David killed their giant, Goliath … and cut his head off and brandished it aloft by its hair (1 Samuel 17:1-58). They were overcome by a mad desire to be somewhere else. (The Israelites pursued and destroyed them.)
It was posturing, and that was what all this was about:
Cosmonauts and astronauts didn’t fight hand to hand and behead one another. Instead, each side’s brave champions, including one woman (Valentina Tereshkova), risked their lives by sitting on top of rockets and having their comrades on the ground light the fuse and fire them into space like the human cannonballs of yore.
The Soviets rocketed off to an early lead. They were the first to put an object into orbit around the Earth (Sputnik), the first to put an animal into orbit (a dog), the first to put a man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin). No sooner had NASA put two astronauts (Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard) into 15-minute suborbital flights to the Bahamas – the Bahamas! – 15 minutes! – two miserable little mortar lobs! – then the Soviets put a second cosmonaut (Gherman Titov) into orbit. He stayed up there for 25 hours and went around the globe 17 times. Three times he flew directly over the United States. The gods had shown which way they were leaning, all right!
And that explained the gloom, and panic, and Wernher von Braun at the planetarium:
Every time you picked up a newspaper you saw headlines with the phrase, SPACE GAP … SPACE GAP … SPACE GAP … The Soviets had produced a generation of scientific geniuses — while we slept, fat and self-satisfied! Educators began tearing curriculums apart as soon as Sputnik went up, introducing the New Math and stressing another latest thing, the Theory of Self-Esteem.
But we slowly caught up, we put John Glenn into actual orbit and did our best. And we finally got to the moon first. But as we had framed this as single combat, to show God’s favor, we got stuck:
Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff – they didn’t use the actual term – really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, okay, we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it.
So it was years of saying nice things about NASA, and cutting their budget to the bone. And the one philosopher was gone:
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.
Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.
So we have our orbital projects – Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission, the International Space Station and the space shuttle – and that’s about it. No one is talking seriously about going to Mars. Why would they? It’s not cool, or sexy, or would prove anything about who’s the best of the best of the best, and favored by God. And it’s expensive.
And something is missing:
What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.
July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for.
So it all ends, in moderately interesting science that doesn’t prove much, and no one cares about. And all of us space kids will be gone soon enough.
And as for the dreamers, the science-fiction writers, Ted Gioia argues that the moon landings devastated them.
At first it seemed so cool:
Long before NASA was founded, the ABCs of sci-fi (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke) and others of their profession had been chronicling the exploration of the universe in works of imaginative fiction. The moon landing was their shining moment, and the public recognized it as much as did the writers themselves. When the TV networks sought out talking heads for their coverage, science fiction writers were on the top of their list.
At the moment that Eagle landed, Arthur C. Clarke was sitting next to Walter Cronkite. Earlier that day, the writer told millions of viewers, during an interview with Harry Reasoner, that the space mission was a “down payment on the future of mankind.” After the moonwalk, Cronkite engaged Clarke and Robert Heinlein in their favorite activity – speculation about the future. The sci-fi veterans could hardly have been more optimistic. Heinlein refused to put limits on where space travel might lead. “We’re going out indefinitely,” he proclaimed.
ABC countered with Asimov and Pohl, interviewed by Rod Serling, and Ray Bradbury was everywhere. And it was an odd, heady time:
Bradbury walked out on David Frost’s Moon Party, a peculiar British TV concoction which countered the news coverage of the historic events with strange entertainment, featuring everything from Englebert Humperdink to a discussion on the ethics of the lunar landing involving A. J. P. Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr. Bradbury was so moved by the Apollo landing that he was in tears. The irreverence of Frost’s coverage was more than he could bear.
He ended up at CBS being interviewed by Mike Wallace – “This is an effort to become immortal. We’re going to take our seed out into space and we’re going to plant it on other worlds and then we won’t have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again.”
But it all ended – Apollo 17 in 1972 was the last trip to the moon, and “a decade later, when people spoke of the moonwalk, they were usually talking about Michael Jackson’s dance steps.”
There was nothing more to write about. NASA became “just another government agency, more bureaucratic than heroic.” And there wasn’t much good to say, as Gioia notes:
And the last time I encountered a space explorer on the front page, the “celebrity” in question was Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who allegedly drove 900 miles wearing a diaper as part of a plot to attack a romantic rival with a BB gun. The case has not gone to trial, and Nowak has vehemently denied the news reports about the diaper.
That’s it? Yep, that’s it. And the sci-fi writers lost out:
Let’s be honest, science fiction writers are much like stock market forecasters. When their predictions come true, everyone listens. Yet when the prognostications fall flat, their audience disappears. The space race was that rare moment when these writers seemed to be on the mark. So many of their other stories – about time travel, telepathy, alien invasion, nuclear holocausts and the like – never came true (thank goodness!), but for a brief period the rocket ship tales seemed plausible. The two most powerful nations on the planet were focused on getting off the planet. The scribblers who had been dreaming about just this state of affairs looked like sages.
But the state of affairs changed:
When the moon became just another piece of abandoned real estate, like much of Florida after the subprime meltdown, the psychological impact on sci-fi was devastating.
So we have now an odd situation – no dreams, and no dreamers. And the space kids all will be gone soon enough.
It’s probably just as well.