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Countdown to Zero

Just before the predictable pyrotechnics of a July 4 weekend, something exploded, maybe or maybe not unpredictably. It was a rocket from SpaceX, the current version of a space-dream factory, meant to resupply the International Space Station. TheFalcon 9 clears the tower. Vehicle propulsion is still nominal. It is on course and on track. Then it bursts in air.

And so it became the third such resupply mission to fail in recent months. Is it more than a failure, but also a metaphor of our times? Ambitions that, even in their smallness, can’t be realized?

As with so many others of a certain generation, I was caught up in the great space adventure, the high calling. Lots of black-and-white TV images: Mercury, a demonstration project around the notion that we could launch Americans into space;Gemini, with its space-based maneuvers meant to pave the way to moonshots; andApollo, which realized the ultimate challenge and provided the ultimate images. It was a July night in 1969, and the moon looked different. It had been brought down to Earth. The spectacle on the small screen (and it really was a small screen) featured the first pair of moon walkers, their footsteps marking the zenith of spaceflight’s heroic age.

Onward (though not outward) from Apollo to the space shuttle. In its earliest phase, the shuttle seemed a natural extension — the heroic age making way for the familiar feats of a Space Transportation System. Spaceflight would be ordinary and inexpensive.

Whatever the shuttle program accomplished, it hardly provided the cheap-and-easy avenue to space. It did provide an avenue for me to experience a space-related thrill. It was April 1981, and I was at Kennedy Space Center for the inaugural launch. I was working as a writer and editor for Lafayette College. I had discovered (after searching pretty relentlessly) an alumnus who was a member of the ground crew; this could be quite a day-in-the-life account, quite the college pride booster. So I was duly accredited as a member of the press. There were the inevitable stalled countdown clocks, the inevitable grumblings from the assembled press corps, and finally the controlled explosion.

For some reason, more than the sight of the whole contraption leaving the pad — surprisingly tentatively at first — I remember the roar of that blastoff. It was the sound of unworldly power. The sound of the future.

Somewhere in the outer limits of my home storage, I found an old issue of Lafayette’s alumni magazine with my description of the central character of launch day: “The shuttle — a strange and wonderful creature, with its stubby nose, delta-shaped wings, bulky fuel tank, and candle-like pair of booster rockets — looked like an extravagant fantasy, a particularly inviting and imaginative attraction from nearby Disneyland.” The shuttle seemed to be a step to something else, to the next challenging chapter of exploration, maybe a Martian venture. Instead, after the last launch, in July 2011, the surviving shuttles were allocated as museum pieces, destined to be displayed like gigantic, immobilized insects. And that was it. If the idea of humans pushing farther and farther into space was no longer a fantasy, it would feel like a closed chapter.

I have a memory from the heroic space age: shaking the hand of Neil Armstrong, a gawky and ghostly presence in that flickering TV image from 1969. Fourteen years later, in 1983, he was at Lafayette to deliver the commencement address. As it happened, my writing portfolio at the college extended to such down-to-earth events. I’ve since gone back to look at my published summary of the ceremony. This was Armstrong the company man, always his preferred persona, not Armstrong the adventurer.

The highest purpose of education, Armstrong told the graduates, is to enable you to give. Today I wonder: What about the gift of something to dream about? Something like space-faring? Armstrong’s address must have been a debris field of clichĂ©s. Life’s noblest goal is to leave the world better than you found it, he said. Ah, yes, maybe just stick with the goal of leaving the world and projecting yourself into the beyond. Wouldn’t that act, in its very audaciousness, spark excitement around the world and, indeed, make it better?

I wanted poetry from the first man on the moon. Norman Mailer memorably portrayed Armstrong as the very definition of laconic. Here’s Mailer quoting Armstrong’s halting description — or defense — of the impending moonshot: “‘I think we’re going,’ he said, and paused, static burning in the yaws of his pause, ‘I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges.'”

Today I’m challenged to imagine what I said to that human being around that handshake. Nice job, Neil, in living out the dream? Thanks for appearing so coolly competent, so self-assured, so tranquil, as you maneuvered your way onto Tranquility Base? Oh, by the way, do you ever feel hemmed in by your earthbound life? What do you think about on a cloudless autumn night with that big, glowing moon high above you, reminding you, beckoning you, taunting you?

We no longer have space-age heroes, but we have space-age chronicles. (To say nothing of the genre of science fiction; Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon is seen as inspiring the early rocket makers.) A couple of new titles appeared this past spring. One is Beyond: Our Future in Space, whose author, Chris Impey, is a university distinguished professor and deputy head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. Impey imagines a bright space-based future, with space elevators replacing clunky launch vehicles, solar sails as aids to propulsion, the “greening” of alien planets, the rampant commercialization of space, and the first baby born off Earth.

Impey’s earthbound discussion is just as interesting, particularly his musings on the human imperative to explore. “After tens of thousands of generations on the African savanna, we spread across the Americas in a few hundred,” he writes. “This rapid, purposeful exploration of new worlds is in its way as dramatic in terms of leaving our comfort zone and embracing the unknown as our decision to leave the Earth when we developed the technology to do so.” Psychologists, he tells us, have found that humans are unique in the way they connect play and imagination: After children develop the necessary motor skills, imagination kicks in, and they’re led to investigate the physical environment.

It may be too much to say we’re hardwired for exploration; after all, it can also be an evolutionary advantage to veer away from dangerous and disruptive thrill seeking. But there are traits that favor adventurousness, and those traits are self-reinforcing: Successful nomads encounter new sources of food; the best users and makers of tools come up with new tools and novel applications of existing tools. So are we natural boundary breakers, including the boundary that leads us into space?

It’s a different story, one about retreating from rather than breaking through boundaries, that Margret Lazarus Dean tells in Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight. Dean, an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee, talks to technicians, astronauts and space enthusiasts. She is on the scene leading up to the shuttle’s last days. Her book is a pursuit of this question: “What does it mean that we have been going to space for fifty years and have decided to stop?” Her answer, in part, is: “Maybe it’s only a fantasy that the explorers of the past were met with better funding and smoother travels. Maybe they all had to beg for money; they all found themselves doing less than had been planned, less than had been hoped for.”

Dean says it’s temptingly simplistic to romanticize the past, including the heroic past of spaceflight. “When we think about the Apollo project now, we think of it as being a time when all Americans were united behind a project they could take pride in. The fact is that Americans were slowly falling out of love with Apollo right from the beginning.”

Even before the first moonwalk, she points out, only about a third of Americans so loved the idea that they thought the moon project was worth the cost. At the same time, a clear majority of Americans throughout the 1960s said they approved ofApollo. You can’t really bring those views into alignment. For that matter, you can’t really reconcile Tranquility Base on the moon and landing zones in Vietnam — the world rejoicing, the world fracturing, all at once. In Dean’s view, uneasiness about the cost of spaceflight has always been paired with widespread positive feelings about spaceflight. As she puts it: “Hugely wasteful; hugely grand. Adjust the focus of your eyes and the same project goes from being the greatest accomplishment of humankind to a pointless show of misspent wealth.”

Today’s space-related feelings are hardly strong enough to rise to the level of ambivalence; it’s more a pervasive attitude of resignation or, as Dean suggests, a feedback loop of low expectations and low returns. We elect representatives who underfund NASA, and then we blame NASA for its lack of vision. We’re left with “a simple and frustratingly predictable pattern.” NASA comes up with a grand plan for getting to Mars, or for getting back to the moon, or for building a space station, or for traveling to an asteroid. The plan is called too ambitious, or certainly too expensive. “In that rare instance when a plan is approved, it’s always in a scaled-back way, always a compromise of the original lofty vision.”

Dean suggests a correlation between America’s self-confidence, as expressed in the heroic space age, and the “voicey” quality that came, around the same time, with the New Journalism. The New Journalists didn’t exactly invent creative nonfiction. But with their overt borrowing of novelistic techniques, they helped attach it to an age of new forms, new possibilities, new exuberance.

Two of those New Journalists drew on spaceflight, and they earn a place in Dean’s book, as well as in her creative nonfiction teaching. One was Mailer, whose Of a Fire on the Moon, from 1970, centers on the moonshot (and on Mailer himself). He writes about the odd melding of technology and the tropics in America’s Florida spaceport, the presumably “holy task” shared by NASA’s workers, and his own readiness to accept a curious “legend” around Neil Armstrong. In a recurring dream, Armstrong supposedly was able to hover over the ground if he held his breath. “It was beautiful because it might soon prove to be prophetic, beautiful because it was profound and it was mysterious, beautiful because it was appropriate to a man who would land on the moon.”

At one point, Mailer describes Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as forming “the core of some magnetic human force called Americanism, patriotism, or Waspitude.” Wolfe, of course, has a pithier term for all of that, captured in his title The Right Stuff, published in 1979.

Wolfe has always been interested in illuminating big cultural moments through character studies. In The Right Stuff, his interest was a cultural moment of anxiety and possibility. America was surging, but the Soviet threat was looming. The competition was on, and a competition needed competitors worthy of its significance.

“As to just what this ineffable quality was… well, it obviously involved bravery,” he writes. “But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life.” In the context of Cold War-fueled patriotism, the idea was that “a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

Today it seems presumptive to bring God’s sensibilities into the picture. But with or without divine sanction, the very notion of spaceflight seems to reside more comfortably in history than in the present — or in the future. Maybe it resides with the “space tourists” who pay between $20 million and $40 million each to leave Earth for ten days or so and go to the ISS, via Russia’s Soyuz vehicle. Astronaut Chris Hadfield refers to them in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Hadfield — who earned some degree of social media fame with his floating astronaut cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” — calls the ISS “every science fiction book come true, every little kids’ dream realized: A large, capable, fully human creation orbiting up in the universe.” A claim of astronomical dimensions.

Hadfield, in the book, pays due respect to “the desire to explore” that’s “in our DNA.” He emphasizes the role of the International Space Station as “a testing ground,” a place to figure out “how to make a spaceship that’s fully self-contained so we can safely venture farther into the universe, and how to keep human beings healthy while doing that.” Is today’s prime directive, though, to venture farther, or to define ourselves within 140 characters?

Near the end of Beyond, Chris Impey writes, hopefully: “We stand at the edge of a vast cosmic shore. We’ve dipped our toes into the water and found it bracing but inviting. Time to jump in.”

That’s one kind of dream — a big, bold jump akin to Neil Armstrong’s hovering over whatever is earthbound. Then there’s the dream recounted by Margaret Lazarus Dean. She’s sitting with Mailer, Wolfe and others, the scribes of space faring. They’re tiny figures seated in the vastness of Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building. “We wait on our folding chairs. We are waiting for something to happen, but we wait and wait and it never gets started.”

I look to see what’s happening at NASA, according to its website. There’s mention of an astronaut preparing to spend a year in orbit, perhaps in a challenge to Hadfield’s pseudo-celebrity. A perfectly circular explanation: He’ll be up there for a long stretch so we can better understand what it’s like to be up there for a long stretch. ISS, his habitat, is the third-brightest object in the sky, says the website. ISS: “Off the Earth, for the Earth,” as NASA has it. But what, exactly is that bright object for, and where, exactly, will it take us?

Finally, I land on this, a statement by NASA’s administrator: “I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee does not fully support NASA’s plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible.” There we have it: a trajectory from the right stuff, the audaciousness that fired up the space age, to a hoped-for launch of some kind of vehicle, for some kind of purpose, around some kind of timeline — as soon as possible.

Robert J. Bliwise is editor of Duke Magazine and teaches magazine journalism at Duke University. He has written for The American Scholar and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications.

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