American Culture

NASA, American exceptionalism, and me: older, and less viable

Fourth in a series

As a child turning teen in the late 1950s, the black-and-white RCA in the living room received only three channels … well, four, but we didn’t watch PBS. So I read. Newspapers, of course (after Dad finished sports and Mom finished news). And books. The library was only two blocks away, so I spent afternoons there sampling the stack. I was a small-town boy at the end of the idyllic “Father Knows Best” decade of Eisenhower placidity, a geeky kid feeling the first pangs of puberty.

I longed for adventure beyond being a Boy Scout or tossing a football with neighborhood pals. In the library I found adventure stories set in space, spun with well-chosen words and exquisitely crafted plots.

I discovered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End.” Then Robert A. Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire.” Science fiction (or, in Clarke’s case, science prediction) captivated me. I became a sci-fi cognoscente.

Then, in 1957, came the shocker: Sputnik. Later, in April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space. The Soviets appeared poised to dominate the Age of Space. Those early days of the Cold War meant little to me; I was barely in high school. But those nascent orbital flights stirred hope for adventures forecast by Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov. They allowed me to imagine I would visit the Moon, maybe Mars, and defeat time and the speed of light to orbit Proxima Centauri in a warp-drive space ship.

I’ve been re-reading them because, a half century after dreaming of travel to other worlds, I remain grounded. I won’t leave footprints on the Moon, let alone orbit a star 4.2 light years away. Only 12 people have stood on the lunar surface, and I’m not one of them, and I never will be.

What the hell went wrong?

The American desire to conquer space began so grandly. Six weeks after Gagarin orbited the Earth in Vostok 1, President Kennedy stood in the well of the House and told the nation to prepare to mount the heavens:

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 the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Eight years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto Mare Tranquillitatis while Michael Collins waited in the orbiting command module. The cost: 2 to 4 cents of every tax dollar, or about $136 billion in 2007 dollars, and the lives of three men: command pilot Virgil Grissom, senior pilot Edward H. White, and pilot Roger B. Chaffee, killed in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire.

More missions and more successes followed. NASA’s program of unmanned space explorations in and beyond the Solar System — Voyager, Pioneer, Magellan, Mariner, Galileo, and Cassini–Huygens, among them — over the decades returned to us data and images, especially images, that kept you and me enthralled with dreams of possibilities. For a while, science, math, and engineering ruled. Full-page science pages and even sections blossomed in dozens of American newspapers in the 1970s, my little 14,000-circulation daily among them, fueled in part by growing public interest in and demand for environmental protection of air, earth, and water.

NASA and its various programs represented, perhaps, a pinnacle of and consuming national belief in American exceptionalism (the theoretical view that the United States differs qualitatively from other nations).

Then so much about us and our collective national motivations began to change. And so did the bright beacon of American exceptionalism.

The nation literally enlarged. When Aldrin climbed down the ladder from the lunar lander, the American population was about 203 million. That has increased by a half to nearly 312 million over the past half century. Such growth in population inevitably altered social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics in America. We began to differ about what government should do, how it should do it, and how it should be paid for.

Government spending has been redirected from what we, the governed, might have wished for over the past half century. And we, the governed, share the blame with the government.

We went to war with credit cards, beginning with Kennedy, LBJ, and Nixon in Vietnam. Today we fight two wars (three? four?) half a world away. None has a definable “victory.” They are costly in time, treasure, and human life. One estimate pegs the cost of the Iraq war alone at $3 trillion (including impacts on the broader economy). The 10-year-old Afghanistan war is nearing the half-trillion-dollar mark in direct federal spending.

During the 1970s, the national gross public debt (the total dollar amount of public and private financial liability) as a percentage of gross domestic product hovered around 27 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The 1980s saw that percentage increase to 41 percent of GDP. In the Clinton decade, the 1990s, it rose to 50 percent before falling to 39 percent. In 2010, it hit 62 percent of GDP.

In February, based on President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget proposal, The Washington Post noted this potential impact:

Starting in 2014, net interest payments will surpass the amount spent on education, transportation, energy and all other discretionary programs outside defense. In 2018, they will outstrip Medicare spending. Only the amounts spent on defense and Social Security would remain bigger under the president’s plan.

In the federal corridors of power, wrangling over the money the Republic owes continues without permanent resolution, beset by ideological bickering.

Over the past half century we became eager consumers, leading to what political pundit Kevin Phillips called “conspicuous opulence” — the Greed Is Good Decade of the 1980s. We bought cars, light pickups, minivans, and SUVs. America now ranks first in number of vehicles per capita (779 per 1,000 people). We bought TVs, owning nearly 750 sets per 1,000 people. And lately we’ve bought all things digital — computers, iPods, and cellphones. Sheesh — we bought 300,000 iPads on the first day they went on sale.

Wealth concentrated from the wallets of many to the offshore accounts of the few. For many, if not most, Americans, growth in family wealth stagnated or lost ground to inflation. Financially, life just got harder for the lower and middle classes, making it more difficult to dream of space flight. Making the monthly mortgage nut overrode all other considerations. Political power shifted from the many to the few as corporatism’s emergent role in politics shifted politicians’ attention from helping us to placating them.

As a nation, we stopped spending sufficiently on the foundations of the Republic that matter — roads, bridges, dams, refineries, airports, facilities to produce safe drinking water or treat wastewater, levees, and school facilities at every level. The national infrastructure needs at minimum a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion. No political will exists to fully repair or invest in the systemic needs of the nation’s infrastructure. State governments, facing scores of billions of dollars in budget deficits, are too broke to act. In Congress, talk is plentiful, but backing pricey infrastructure projects doesn’t win votes.

I can’t even begin to calculate the moral, economic, cultural, social, or political costs of the Cold War and its attendant arms race. That, and the financial drain of America’s self-assumed role as the world’s cop on the beat, have saddled the Republic with debts in the many trillions of dollars.

In the 1960s, NASA harnessed our national dream and goal of manned space flight to the best and most motivated scientific and engineering minds in the nation (and a few “borrowed” German minds). Science and math became cool for young people to study (I did). But that has changed. A 2002 RAND think tank study found that a young adult’s probability of obtaining a science or engineering degree has risen much less in the United States than abroad. The United States ranks 37th in spending on education as a percentage of GDP (5.7 percent), a figure just ahead of defense spending (FY2010) of 4.7 percent of GDP.

Our kids are leaving college today saddled with an uncertain future amid 9.2 percent unemployment and student loans averaging nearly $23,000. The class of 2011 has the dubious distinction of being the most indebted class in history. Yet federal loan support has grown insufficiently to give them a decent, less indebted start in life.

Our educational system from bottom to top has become ideologically charged, budget- and facility-challenged, and driven by a regimen of standardized tests. We graduate young people with fewer skills and bodies of knowledge than modern life demands. Dreaming of space flight is predicated on more than wishful thinking: It requires creative insight, a well-trained imagination, and the conceptual knowledge to see the impossible as possible. We did the impossible in the 1960s. When’s the last time we did so?

As manned space flight became routine (but not monthly, as NASA first promised, and not cheap, as NASA also promised), press attention drifted away — save for the focus following the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. As former CNN science reporter Miles O’Brien said Sunday on Reliable Sources, the press came to view the shuttle as a “space truck.” The press image of the astronauts, O’Brien said, was transformed from the Tom Wolfe superstars of the Mercury Seven to the bland “airline pilots” of the Space Shuttle era.

Television, O’Brien argued, became less enamored of science coverage. So did newspapers. Science pages and sections vanished — because they could not be supported by advertising. We, the public, no longer read about science. Our eyeballs went elsewhere — and the advertising dollars followed.

Budget stresses challenged NASA’s own flight path beyond the Shuttle era. The Shuttle’s intended successor, the Constellation program, has been axed. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does American enterprise. NASA’s lack of a clear, publicly supported and demanded mission of continued viable human spaceflight has been left to commercial entities. Cue the majestic, swelling musical overture, please, that disguises the profit motive.

Don’t misunderstand, please: Entrepreneurship has been an innovative engine and lies at the heart of my view of American exceptionalism. If Richard Branson and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan want to make a buck with Virgin Galactic at $200,000 a seat, by all means, let them. May they live long and prosper.

But those among us who lived through the 1960s, even with its turmoil over an unpopular war, probably distinguish between the financial motivation of commercial space flight today and the broad, eyes-on-the-stars nationalism standing firmly behind the mission of Apollo. NASA, not necessarily or entirely through its own fault, is now adrift without that national consensus, let alone clear congressional or presidential direction. We are standing still. We have not built exceptionally on the promise that took us to the Moon in less than a decade. I do not expect to see in my remaining years an American man or woman planting a flag in the dust of Luna. And been there, done that.

This depiction of the last half century and its relationship with a dream of extra-planetary space flight lies wide open to challenge or ridicule. Cherry-picking of facts and observations is not formal analysis, but this has become my view of unpleasant-to-contemplate change in American exceptionalism and its consequences on that dream. The view of America as qualitatively superior may still be seen in many aspects of American domestic and foreign affairs … but that exceptionalism has been eroded.

However, part of American exceptionalism is the constitutional expectation that the governed challenge the governors. It is that civic duty of questioning government performance and authority that helps fuel our exceptionalism. But it should also mean that we turn an introspective lens on ourselves, the governed. What have we wrought in the last half century?

It is difficult to imagine American successes in space — or any other important exploratory arena — in the near or distant future because we have yet to resolve our diminished present.

I would have liked to have flown in space. Returning, after a half a century, to reading Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov has been enjoyable. They have been exceptional storytellers, and I teach storytelling for a living. Their stories are brilliantly conceived human comedy and drama. But more than five decades ago Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov wrote with the assumption of successful human exploration of space. For them, humanity among the stars was a given.

Re-reading these marvelous writers, however, has been tinged with melancholy — because we can no longer make that assumption of success. That is a tragedy, among others, of a flawed American exceptionalism.

5 replies »

  1. Well put. We should have been on Mars years ago.

    And I thought I was the one who came up with “space truck”!

  2. Do you want to know what history will record as the single most important cause for the decline of the United States? h1b! “As labor arbitrage via imported foreign workers depressed wages and increased unemployment for American scientists and engineers, the very fabric of scientific culture was destroyed. Soon the importation slowed as those workers had better options at home; before US could react, it had fallen behind…..

  3. Well said. I grew up in the 60s-70s reading Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. I drifted off scifi until recently getting hooked on KSRobinson’s Mars trilogy (love his sci projection with no warp drive, beaming up – everything explicable by known physics!)
    I too saw a shadow coming over American exceptionalism with the end of the Shuttle program–together with economic and scientific slippage. One might hope that less belief in exceptionalism could lead to less support for unilateralism and adventurism on the world stage – but who knows?
    I remember thinking how unrealistic it seemed when President Bush (GW) announced a big new goal of manned flight to Mars. I don’t seem to hear much about that actually taking root as a long-term priority with budget support – though at the time the main reaction seemed to be that it would be paid for at the expense of squeezing dry the already tight budget for unmanned probes?