»  The Straggler, No. 80

July 6, 2009

   Magnificent Folly

Is it really 40 years? Good heavens!

I suppose everyone who cared about such things can recall the moment with precision. I was working as a bartender at a pub in Liverpool, northwest England. The proprietor of the place, a fussy, middle-aged Irish bachelor, belonged to the category of persons who did not care about such things. He cared so little, in fact, that I had a running fight with him over control of the one TV set, which was in the public bar. Each time Gerry left to deliver drinks to the full-service lounge in the back, I would switch the set to the continuous news commentary from the BBC. When he returned, he'd switch it back to the vapid variety program he preferred, tutting and frowning his annoyance. The customers in the public bar, working-class Liverpudlians, sided pretty solidly with the proprietor. So much people care about history.

And such history it seemed to be! In a fragile contraption hurled by a spasm of burning gases across a quarter million miles of empty space (and built, as it happens, less than ten miles from my present home), human beings set themselves down on the surface of another world, in an alien landscape. The bustle and distractions of a busy weekend pub, and my fool boss's pursed-lip refusal to be interested in such a momentous event (Will you be leaving the telly alone there now John for goodness' sake?), left me with only fleeting, fragmentary impressions. I don't, for example, recall hearing Neil Armstrong's famous words: "Houston, Tranquility Base here …" I knew men had landed on the Moon, though, and I thought the world had changed for ever.

How naïve! Nothing changed at all. The Arabs and Israelis had gone at each other hammer and tongs two years before: Four years later they did so again. The mainland Chinese, in the throes of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, were told nothing of the event. (So our newspapers reported. However, several urban Chinese have told me they knew about the Moon landing within a few hours.) Americans themselves were at least as interested in Chappaquiddick as in Tranquility Base.

Forty years on, what does it look like, really, but another TV special? Nothing followed from the Moon landing, other than, of course, five more Moon landings and the wretched, pointless, homicidal Space Shuttle program. It made nothing happen. It did not stir new thoughts in the minds of civilized men, as the great 15th- and 16th-century sea voyages did. It has brought us no potatoes, no tobacco, no Noble Savagery speculations on human nature, no Tempest. It made no dramatic new fortunes (though I suppose some shareholders in the aerospace companies did well). It did not make poor, inconsequential nations into world powers. Nothing unexpected turned up. The voyages, Apollo 13's malfunction aside, went rigidly as planned. We found what we expected to find: dust and rocks.

I don't say these things in a spirit of dry cynicism. At the time, I was thrilled beyond measure by the Moon landing. An amateur astronomer and science-fiction fan from far back in childhood, I was precisely in the target audience for space travel's imaginative appeal. From John Wyndham's "Troon" stories in the sci-fi magazine New Worlds I had made the acquaintance of Rupert Brooke's 1908 poem "The Jolly Company" — "The stars, a jolly company, / I envied, straying late and lonely …" — with its central (and rather heavy-footed, I now see) metaphor locked in like a heat-seeking missile on adolescent angst: "God out of Heaven may laugh to see / The happy crowds; and never know / That in his lone obscure distress / Each walketh in a wilderness."

Who that knew the poem could fail to think of its closing lines when hearing those scratchy communications from a spacecraft far out in the void?

       … For, all the night,
I heard the thin gnat-voices cry,
Star to faint star, across the sky.

Like every other sci-fi fan, I supposed that having filled up the land surface of the Earth, Homo sap. would proceed to other worlds, to fill them up too, and mine their riches. I further supposed, as college-educated youngsters of that generation mostly did — and as sci-fi writers, including even conservative-libertarian ones like Robert Heinlein, also did — that a national government was the right agent to carry out these magnificent enterprises.

Apollo cost a mighty pile of money, though, at least by the standards of its own time — mere billions, I mean, not the trillions we are now accustomed to when speaking of federal spending. Should the U.S. government really be in the business of satisfying our imaginative hungers — even the hungers of, to judge by my pub customers and the Chappaquiddick gawpers, a geeky minority?

Well, to some modest degree, of course governments do have imaginative functions — an uplifting presidential speech, preservation of monuments, an occasional military parade, "ceremonial deism." These are merely low-budget assists to national bonding, though: reminders that we are a nation, distinctive among other nations, and ready to defend our sovereignty. If the cost to the public fisc of one such decorative extra runs to tens of billions, with only the most distant and speculative prospect of future returns, the citizens of a free republic should cancel the check. Grandiose public-works projects of no practical value should be left to states of the imperial-despotic variety. "A monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments," said Dr. Johnson of the Great Pyramid.

Cancel the check we duly did. The Apollo program ended, its great engines carted off to museums or broken up for scrap. The aerospace contractors and their lobbyists were given the Shuttle as a consolation prize; but that accomplished no more than Apollo had — nothing that could not have been done at one-tenth the price by unmanned vehicles. Now the Shuttle too is headed for the junkyard. A "next-generation" manned-space program called Constellation is on NASA's drawing board, but nobody thinks anything will come of it, and Congress is already quietly turning off the funding spigots.

Americans who travel beyond the atmosphere in future will do so in privately financed vehicles, or on seats rented from other governments still keen to explore "the insufficiency of human enjoyments" on their citizens' behalf. Apollo was an extravagance, a folly. But what a glorious, soul-stirring folly!