What Matters When the World is Burning?
In the face of pandemics, riots, and racism, space exploration can seem irrelevant. But by asking the question of whether astronauts (or artists) matter, we confront a deeper question: What kind of future do we want?
Last month, I wrote about the future of cinemas and theatres after the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an issue worth thinking about, because we are more than animals fighting for survival – we are a species that thrives. We cultivate culture, create art, and spread ideas worth considering. We are moved by novels, movies, and music. No civilisation is worthy of the name without art, and no future lacking culture is worth looking forward to.
Sometimes, however, survival is what matters. Sometimes we are forced to fight simply to stay alive, whether it is because of a global disease or a broken system whose fault lines run through our lives. Sometimes, this struggle is inflicted on us with the immediacy of a knee pushed against the back of a neck. In these moments, considerations of art and exploration are no longer primary; they still matter and will have a place in the path forwards, but for now, they step respectfully into the background.
In May, Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX launched a Falcon rocket and successfully transported two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. There were no front-page headlines about the launch. The rocket had lifted off from a world stricken by a disease killing our most vulnerable people and from a nation swept up in protest, fury, vandalism, and flames sparked by the death of George Floyd, needlessly and viciously killed beneath the knee of a police officer.
I, like many of us, have long been fascinated with space travel. Exploration is part of who we are as a species. Few projects have such realistic chances of uniting nations in a truly global (and universal) endeavour. We have already seen advances in terrestrial medicine and technology thanks to experiments in space, and many more of our earthbound problems might be resolved as a result of our continued curiosity off-planet.
But these oft-repeated justifications for the expenditures of such missions feel somewhat effete in the face of everything confronting us on Earth right now. So, as I often do when faced with complex issues (especially those that attract so many superficial and simplistic responses), I want to take a closer look at what is going on. I want to examine our relationship with space exploration as a lens through which to view our values, to ask: What matters to us and why?
“IF THEY CAN SEND A MAN TO THE MOON, WHY CAN’T THEY ...?”
The Sixties: A decade of cultural optimism, opening with The Jetsons, that brightly coloured vision of a technologically advanced future, and closing with humanity’s biggest leap towards that future with Neil Armstrong’s stepping onto the moon. Between these two points came the sexual revolution, bell-bottoms and tie-dye, hippies tripping on acid, and flower children fighting war with words.
Also the Sixties: The Vietnam War. Protests full of people so sincere, so bare-footed. They came in peace and with love, which made it easy for others to dismiss them as ridiculous. But they meant it. They meant it when they offered hugs to the police, when they broke out in song and smiles, when they smoked pot to break down barriers.
It wasn’t long, however, until ideological certitude poisoned the movement. Against the nationalists who insisted the US was infallible, the protesters were certain that their nation was merely one of many monsters, and that because the country was evil, its citizens were equally guilty. Some of them signalled their shame by constantly speaking of the culpability of white Westerners in every conceivable evil committed throughout history to date. To speak of any good done by our societies was, according to the doctrine of the day, to publicly espouse white supremacy.
This troubled time and the question of values can be understood through two defining moments of the second half of the twentieth century. (This is dependent, incidentally, on looking at this through the lens of space exploration; there are, of course, many other lenses from all over the world.) The apex of human creativity and optimism in this period was the Apollo 11 Moon landing, in 1969; its nadir was the much mocked crash-landing of Skylab in 1979.
Watching men kick up dust beneath their feet on a moon more than 200,000 miles from Earth, the collective optimism of the dreamers seemed vindicated. Many, perhaps most, felt great hope at the prospect of human ingenuity as represented by the success of the Apollo 11 mission, hence the popular phrase that endured for some time after: “If they can send a man to the Moon, why can’t they ...?”
In spite of this, a countercultural current was gaining momentum, and the surface began to ripple with its energy. Many were asking with growing irritation, “Who cares about spaceships when I can’t afford to fuel my car?” Gill Scott-Heron expressed his own objections poignantly with the poem Whitey on the Moon. Part of it goes:
I can’t pay no doctor bill. (but Whitey’s on the moon) Ten years from now I'll be paying still. (while Whitey’s on the moon)
Scott-Heron’s critical stance towards the space race must be contended with seriously; for all the simplicity of the minimalist poem itself, there are no simple answers to the poem’s fundamental question:
How come there ain’t no money here? (Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
The question today might be, “Who cares about space when I can’t breathe on Earth?”
The Apollo 11 mission was conducted against the backdrop of the prolonged conflict in Vietnam. In the same year that men went to the moon, a poster exposed the source of the outrage that it also gave expression to. It was called, hauntingly, And babies. The image displays the casually strewn bodies of women and children slaughtered by US soldiers in the “Mỹ Lai Massacre”.
At the top of the poster is printed “Q. And babies?”, the question posed by a CBS News journalist to soldier Paul Meadlo, who took part in the killing and whose response is printed at the bottom of the image: “A. And babies.” Cultural historian M Paul Holsinger has written that of all the shocking photographs of the cruelty and carnage of the Vietnam War, “no single work went further to convince many Americans that the United States had no reason to be an active participant in a war where even the smallest children were the ‘enemy’”. Having seen the awful image, I can believe it.
Let’s skip ahead to 1979. A spaceship was headed for Earth. The media hollered about it, placing wagers on how much damage its arrival would wreak and where on the planet it would crash. This was Skylab, a space station that once housed astronauts discovering new cosmological secrets. What could better embody the actualisation of science fiction in real life? And yet far fewer watched its launch in 1973 than had watched the launch of Apollo 11. Unable to be re-boosted by a Space Shuttle, Skylab’s orbit decayed and it fell unceremoniously back to Earth in 1979.
Meanwhile, President Carter hid at Camp David as he tried to resolve the energy crisis. US citizens seemed to be on the verge of a revolt, tired of their ineffectual leader. The nation had become understandably cynical about life and the future. They no longer believed that the next day would be better than the last, that their children would be better off than their parents.
It was hoped by some that Skylab would change things, would reinvigorate the cultural imagination. In the days before re-entering the atmosphere, Skylab did receive a lot of attention in the press, though not the kind that had been hoped for: People were placing bets on whether it would hit a populated area and kill someone. There were op-ed pieces on the “failure” of this project. The San Francisco Chronicle offered $200,000 to any subscriber who suffered personal injury or damage to property by the flaming wreck of the spaceship.
People, it seemed, had become more interested in tragedy than heroism.
FEAR OF THE KNOWN
We once imagined – hoped – that one day we might live in a world of pocket computers, flying machines, technology that could clothe and feed everyone, and that individuals would be judged not “by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. Back in the golden age of science fiction, we imagined things we might discover and achieve. We dreamed beyond the boundaries of what was currently possible – and we chased it, often achieving it.
But these accomplishments came at a cost. When we discovered somewhere new, we displaced whoever was already there. We built vehicles to traverse the world with and burned the world up at the same time. We spread education and technology along with deadly diseases. We dedicated ourselves to human rights and committed inhuman atrocities. We flew to the stars and had to invent a new term for the pollution that came of it – space junk. With every success we became a little more wary.
H P Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I’m increasingly convinced that this oldest of fears has been supplanted by a new one – having been scarred by what we have seen in the worst devils of our nature, so demoralised by the horrific consequences that emerged from even our best intentions, so haunted by the afterglow of atomic bombs and the dust of destruction and the heat of our climatic Hell, we are now much more scared of the known than of anything else.
We are so frightened by what we know we are capable of that we have lost interest (fearful or otherwise) in the unknown.
QUESTIONS OR ANSWERS
Honesty is one of the values I have committed myself to. The endeavour of Art Of Conversation is to openly ask questions that seek truth, which means never providing bromides that disguise or lead away from it. And the truth here is that I don’t have a definitive answer one way or another on this issue.
The truth is that I want to believe space exploration matters, as does every part of culture that doesn’t directly address the most pressing issues of today, but that offers hope. I am convinced that the kind of world we end up with, regarding how we address climate change, racism, and every other subject of importance, is a matter of optimistic vision. I believe that it is not enough to only fight against what is unjust but that we must fight for what is good.
But if I were given the power to pass the big money to either NASA or directly to families in desperate need, I know that I would make space wait. We fly to the moon and we explore the depths of the ocean because we hope. We believe that we can find something better, we can discover solutions to big problems, we can create a future worth moving towards. That should never be sacrificed, but maybe we can direct that optimism towards goals more Earth-bound, more likely to address the most urgent problems, to manifest brighter tomorrows that are not quite so far ahead in our future.
So I have to close this essay with a firm and possibly unsatisfying I don’t know. But when the question of relative urgency and importance is raised regarding what artists and writers do, I would justify the cultural project by suggesting that we may not have answers, but we can help to ask the right questions.
So here’s the question I believe to be most pressing in this context: What kind of future do you hope for?
• Whitey on the Moon, from “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox”, Gill Scott-Heron (1970)
• War and American Popular Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, M Paul Holsinger (1999)
• Supernatural Horror in Literature, H P Lovecraft (1927)