Losing our way
by Matt Worley
One of the biggest concentrations of viewers on the Internet for any one event came with the recent launch of the space shuttle Discovery. By the time I turned my TV on, everything was fine (although there were oft-repeated loops of debris coming loose during launch). The shuttle had been grounded for almost two and a half years because of the explosion of the Columbia on my thirty-first birthday.
During this entire mission, everyone has questioned the value of the shuttle and, in turn, exploring space. Is it worth all this money and risk of death to astronauts?
Before the Columbia blew up, shuttle take-offs and landings had become routine. No one watched much anymore. Nothing exciting was happening. We didn't find a strange black monolith buried in a moon crater. We didn't find anything new--really. Mostly they were conducting experiments, working on the space station and repairing satellites. Not really exploring space, as much as doing some routine work--albeit miles above the surface of the Earth.
We actually haven't been to the moon in decades. We've sent little rovers to Mars (and seen some interesting images), but no man has made it that far. The Hubble telescope has taken some amazing pictures, but it is in disrepair and scheduled to stop working in a few years.
Star Trek, the TV series, called space the final frontier. Among other things, the show got everyone revved up about the possibilities in that almost unlimited amount of space beyond our atmosphere. But somewhere we lost our way.
Finding inner peace, isolating ourselves from our communities and jacking into the Internet have pulled us back from looking outside ourselves. We've gone inside, put up barriers and pointed fingers at everyone else for our own problems. Our penchant for navel-gazing has made us nearsighted.
Movies about aliens and outer space have gone from overcoming the shortcomings of humans in order to touch the cosmos, to destructive animals from other stars wanting to take our home.
In 2001, the enemy wasn't the monolith (which represented the tree of knowledge, among other things), but the flawed human-made computer HAL. Star Wars used space as a setting to tell a story of rebels fighting an evil empire (which was mostly comprised of Nazi-like humans). Star Trek had conflict with other species, but the answers were almost always finding a way to live in peace--rather than war. Close Encounters and E.T. showed humans trying to overcome their own problems to try to understand beings from another planet.
But in the last ten years or so, movies like Independence Day, Signs, Species, Starship Troopers and the recent War of the Worlds have been about defending the homeland from evil invaders--we've tripped back to the 50s and 60s b-movies of paranoia and terror. The threat of communism gives way to terrorism, manifested in guys wearing rubber suits with big guns.
And we wonder if it's worth the money to keep sending people into space.
If our Prez had proposed to the spend the amount of money we've spent fighting our fellow human beings in the last three years on exploring space, I'd think he lost his mind a bit, but I'd feel much better about his agenda.
It would never pass, of course. Hell, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still non-budgetary spending, even though it's been going on for almost three years and there is no end in sight. So, if you think about it, our national budget wouldn't allow us to spend that much money on anything, much less a stupendous space program.
But at least we'd be trying to do something noble. We'd be trying to advance human society, instead of trying to burn it down.
I don't think we're gonna find the answers to the big questions out in space during my lifetime. But I do think we'd be doing ourselves a better service than trying, in vain, to step on the small, but tenacious ants of "terrorism." All that encourages people to do is hide in their gated communities and rail against everyone they don't know.
Eventually, the trapped animal lashes out at everyone--no matter their race, creed or political manifesto.
Matt Worley would love to go into space someday--when the price for the flight comes down a bit.