Hope, the moon, and the culture of fear

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, July 6, 2011, 11:03 PM | comments: 0

One of the things I really enjoy about American history is some of the speeches from the 60's. My favorite, after MLK's "I Have a Dream," is probably Kennedy's moon mission speeches. The call for the moon program first came in a speech to Congress, where he outlined a number of programs, goals and policies. He really laid it out, too. He said it would be crazy expensive, extremely difficult, and at great risk for failure. More than a year later, he made the speech at Rice University that is often quoted:

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

I love everything about that. Later in the speech, Kennedy goes on to say how expensive it is, and he's unapologetic about it. What he bought with the Apollo program was a great deal of hope, excitement and pride, that I don't think this country has seen since, save for a few weeks after 9/11.

Unfortunately, our manned space program is essentially over, with the end of the Space Shuttle program. The last launch, weather permitting, is Friday. I saw John Glenn on the news tonight, and as you might expect, he's very disappointed. He paints a solid picture about what the space program has done for the American psyche.

And let's frame that era, when Kennedy was president, with more context. It's easy to argue that at no time was humanity as intent on destroying itself. The Cuban Missile Crisis nearly brought us to a war that no one could win. I don't care what you think, that shit is a lot more scary than some crazy ass terrorist intent on crashing planes. Nuclear annihilation trumps terrorism.

Kennedy didn't instill fear in people and ask them to hang out in bomb shelters. He said, let's put a guy on the moon. Make it happen. It was inspiring. Sure, some people still thought he was full of shit (some apparently because he was Catholic), but instead of hollow rhetoric about who hates freedom and who we're going to chase down next, Kennedy challenged great minds to do something impossible. That's awesome.

I certainly wasn't alive then, and my older friends and family who were alive then are happy to tell you how chaotic things were, especially with regard to Vietnam. But what an amazing time in history, when we were able to begin fixing some of our biggest problems, like civil rights issues, and push for a better world through science and technology.

Today, our culture is wrapped in fear. Fear of terrorists, fear of economic meltdown, fear of climate change. In the long term, 9/11 changed us for the worse, and the terrorists got what they wanted. No one cares what we're capable of, just that we get bad guys on the other side of the world so we can continue to do... nothing. I'm fucking tired of it.

NASA hasn't had a budget much over 1% of the federal budget in decades. It seemed to me like a pretty good buy for the money. These days, no one questions massive spending on defense, both parties refuse to cut what's important to them, no one will concede that reducing national debt is only possible by raising taxes and cutting spending... I don't think NASA has a chance in the long run.

Will private industry step up? Hard to say. X Prize is certainly trying to stimulate it. I'm just disappointed. There was something psychologically valuable about the Shuttle program, and now it's gone.



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