We, the explorers

I don’t think it’s too great a spoiler to mention here that the Apollo space program featured in Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who.  They showed the footage that everyone has seen, of course, and played the words that everyone knows.  They played Kennedy’s words on Doctor Who Confidential, the handsome man standing there, announcing that we would go to the moon because to do so is difficult.  I am history-wise enough to know that he also wanted to go to the moon to beat out the Russians, but when you strip his words of that shading, you have the ability to move beyond dreams.  You have the ability to not just stand in a field, like John Carter, and stretch out your arms and go to Mars simply by hoping, hoping so hard.  You have funding, and men in short-sleeved dress shirts turning blue until it is announced that the Eagle has landed.  You have people so brave that they essentially seal themselves in a cooking pot, strap said cooking pot to a very large bomb, and aim for the beauty of the night.

I’ve looked at the moon through a reasonably strong telescope, and seeing the craters, the shadows, the way it moves so quickly out of view because of the Earth’s movement, it is a revelation how real it is.  To stand on land that is wholly new and see an earthrise can only be several orders of magnitude more amazing, more shattering of your own ego.  (Seeing Saturn’s rings was even more amazing.  When Mars is visible, I’m going to be a wreck.  I love that strange red planet more than I can say.)

And there were more people who followed, who aimed for the night and the nothingness, and some of them died and some of them lived, and the planet dreamt below them.  I work on an old Portuguese fishing ship when I’m back in Philadelphia; her last sailing season was 1969.  She and her green-and-white hull and her huge white sails had come to the Grand Banks every year for over sixty years, and that August they had come to fish for the last of the cod as men set foot on land that was not their own.

And people dreamed.  People had always dreamed, but now those dreams were going farther than the horizon, and there was a reality to go with them.  There was funding, there were infinitely clever people who made amazing things out of it.  There was Sally Ride, grinning under a mop of curly hair and making one of my earliest memories.  There was Mae Jemison on an episode of Star Trek, and there was Star Trek itself to show us the culmination of our dreams.  (Later, there was the gentle pointing-out that the Federation could be pretty creepy, but that’s a story for another time.) There was the ISS, and video of people goofing off in zero-g (another early, early memory), and there was knowing that of course we would go farther, that of course we would explore.  We would explore, we the human race, we’d learn the Moon and go on to Mars, and go beyond in that widest horizon.

And I couldn’t help but cry a little on Saturday, watching the beginning of that reality realised, now that we are at the end of that reality.  Endeavor was supposed to take off on Friday; it’s been delayed due to mechanical problems.  If it had taken off, there would be one more shuttle flight to go, and there would end the US involvement in manned spaceflight, and a huge part of manned spaceflight period.  The shuttles would be put in museums, for me or someone like me to clean, care for, display.  They would become relics of my early memories and the dreams of not enough generations of people.  SETI is shutting down (hopefully temporarily), and hopes for spaceflight lie with commercial enterprises.  Which are not inherently bad, but why have we stopped looking at the sky?  Why have we stopped looking around us?  Why can’t we spare that half a penny per person anymore?  What is more important than remembering that we are only one small part of the cosmos, the small blue dot?  We are no longer explorers, no longer reaching for the horizon, and seeing that strange August day when man walked on the moon hurts, because it means that we’re ending that era.

No one will stop dreaming of other worlds; but the loss of that possibility, the loss of momentum and the decision that space travel, real travel, is no longer important, will have an impact.  I hope it will; perhaps it was right that the birth of space travel, happening so near the death of it, was part of a science fiction show.  But mostly, all I can feel is mourning, and a little anger, and bewilderment that we would cut ourselves off from so much, to gain…what?


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