explorer, cowboy, pirate, astronaut

i, like manyothers, have been contemplating the demise of manned spaceflight in the United States since Friday morning's final launch of Atlantis.  this is not the sort of thing that typically tugs at me…i tweeted as much just prior to the launch.  i have very vague early memories of watching shuttle launches live on network tv, and i now realize that they must have been some of the first post-Challenger launches, and the nation was rightfully on pins and needles, following the developments closely.  later in my childhood, STS missions came and went, and nobody paid much attention.  when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, i was in high school, and happened to be at a local Science Olympiad competition.  even among that assembled group of science nerds, i don't think anyone there could have done better than chance at guessing whether a space shuttle mission was in progress, prior to a giant, life-consuming fireball appearing over Texas.  the shuttle program has largely lived outside the public's attention, except for the two occasions on which it claimed seven lives each.  (a remarkable record, really: 2 of 131 manned STS missions went badly. i have strong opinions on this, and it should probably be saved for another time.) so why, then, this sudden feeling of nostalgia?  for my parents' and grandparents' generation—really, anybody who lived through the Space Race—that seems legitimate.  for me, though, that's not exactly the emotion…it's fake nostalgia (fauxstalgia?) or, perhaps, a nagging feeling that's looking toward the future and not the past.

i took a walk last night just after sunset.  the last bit of orange glow was hanging among clouds and haze in the west; directly overhead the sky was turning a deep but not yet dark blue, and the moon was high in the sky, just past first quarter.  i actually stopped in my tracks and just stared at it.  my thoughts were "as far as i'm concerned, that place doesn't exist.  as far as i can tell, nobody has ever been there, and nobody ever will."  that's not to say that i'm a moon landing denier; it happened, but it didn't happen for me.  and that's not to say that i know nothing about it; if i pause and clear my mind, i can mentally play back the famous "one small step" audio clip, complete with speech error, the tone of Neil Armstrong's voice, and the noise of the NASA radio feed.  beyond that, though, it's about as tangible to me as the Civil War.

the fact that space exploration has been so peripheral and ephemeral in my lifetime raises the question: what exactly are we losing by giving up the practice of periodically strapping seven humans into a funny-looking airplane attached to a giant, orange can of explosives and blasting them off the planet?  answers: one of our fundamental exploratory aspirations; the relevance of one of the simplest but most powerful university ads of all time:

this 2005 tv spot came to be unofficially dubbed "space, bitches. space" in the brilliant and hilarious prose of college football blogger Orson Swindle.  but his apt (if rather blunt) assessment of its message, although less than six years old, is teetering on the brink of irrelevance:

Subtext: Michigan grads go to space. Motherfucking space. Not just one, either, but three at a time.

reality: nobody goes to space anymore.  so Michigan is great and all, and you should go there if you like being smart and learning things, but if you want to go to space, sorry.  but you should still go there, because nobody else is going to put you in space either.  a week from today, the set containing all American astronauts will equal Ø.  say goodbye to:

astronaut, one of only two basic childhood employment fantasies to require a college degree (fireman, explorer, cowboy, and pirate are, as far as we know, two-year degrees or apprenticeship programs. Doctor would be the other.)

this is not an endorsement of pirate as a career choice.  the qualification in Orson's description is key: requiring a college degree.  astronaut was the type of fantasy that got children to apply themselves.  sure, the odds of being sent into orbit are less than becoming a professional athlete, but pushing yourself in that direction—the direction of inquisitiveness, being a practicing scientist, making discoveries for yourself and others—will certainly lead down some fruitful path.

maybe going through all of this is just wasted words on my part, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted space advocate, has summarized it all in a tweet:

 tyson tweet

tyson tweet

but i think his remark deserves some explication.  the necessary replacement is not simply dollars for a new government program—it's a replacement for the conception of astronaut.

on the bookshelf in my living room, the top shelf contains fantasy and science fiction, in two distinct sections.  i've always been a little bit baffled by libraries and bookstores that lump them all together in one mish-mash of spaceships, dragons, magic spells, laser guns, elves, trolls, and robots.  there is a dividing line, and a pretty empirical one: time after time in the 20th and 21st century, science fiction has become science fact, but fantasy remains confined to its pages.  but now we're in danger of doing something that, to my knowledge, has never happened before.  we are turning science fact back into science fiction.

that is dangerous.  a child idolizing Neil Armstrong should never be given the same, dismissive "oh, that's cute" as one idolizing Harry Potter.  (the apparent complete and utter lack of higher education in Rowling's wizarding world is another topic to take up at a later date.)  yes, only 12 men made it to the moon; only ~550 into orbit; but 0 have successfully cast expelliarmus.  no amount of obsessive rereading of HP, dressing up in robes, or playing fake quidditch will get us close to turning 0 into 1.  but for those who aim for space and miss, obsessing over astronomy, engineering, physics, or just the sheer joy of exploration turns all of the near misses into successes.  so let's not forget where the target is.  space, bitches. space.