Joe’s Space Odyssey or Is He Just Lost in Space?
April 12, 2011 was the 50th anniversary of manned space flight. It is an appropriate time for me to give a few opinions about the Final Frontier.
When I was growing up, space was huge. We late Boomer children were enthralled hearing Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra rhapsodizing about liftoffs, space walks, retrorockets and splashdowns. Our textbooks had lots of photos of shiny rockets and flying saucers, and they argued the space age would create heaven — or heavens — on earth. They also gave breathless descriptions that tomorrow or the next day we would be meeting extraterrestrials and going everywhere in space. However, in 1974 my classmates and I laughed hysterically when we read from an old science book predicting we might be riding to the moon in atomic carpets in June 1972.
Consumer products promoting space were equally huge. There was Quisp cereal (featuring a space alien that was created by the same people who did Rocky and Bullwinkle), Tang orange drink, Space Food Sticks, Ford Galaxies, Chevy Novas, Mercury Comets, and solar-powered watches and calculators. The Houston baseball club changed its name from the Wild West-like Colt .45s to the Astros and played in the Astrodome, a futuristic indoor stadium that looked like a spaceship and became the model for a generation of domed stadiums.
During the Space Race in the 1960s and 1970s, astronaut and alien movies changed from drive-in schlock like Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Astro-Zombies, Zontar: The Thing from Venus, and Mars Need Women to classics like Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. It was arguably the golden age of television outer space drama with shows like “Star Trek”, “The Outer Limits”, “Lost in Space”, “Dr. Who”, and “The Twilight Zone”. Even moronic space-themed comedies during this time period like “The Jetsons”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “My Favorite Martian”, and “It’s About Time” were actually pretty funny.
Not surprisingly, I became fascinated with astronomy and the space program. Unlike physics with its textbooks that looked like hieroglyphics and chemistry with its incomprehensible formulas and its glass beakers and mad scientist experiments, astronomy was the one scientific discipline that I considered to be really far out. It was a heavenly experience looking at pictures of planets, galaxies, comets, nebulae, and meteorites in encyclopedia and textbooks. The terms used by astronomers and astronauts like quarks, quasars, phasers, and Big Bang sounded flying-saucerish, exotic, sexy.
Unfortunately, many people—myself included—gradually lost interest in space.
Part of the reason for the decline of the space program was that after the moon landings there were no great programs for astronauts to explore other worlds. While unmanned satellites like Pioneer and Voyager made enormous advances in astronomy and did a great job taking photographs of planets like Jupiter and Saturn, they lacked the drama of watching astronauts driving in Lunar Rovers and hitting golf balls on the moon or hearing Neil Armstrong rasp, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Another reason for the decline of the space program was the end of the Cold War. The rivalry between the Russians and the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s spurred the exploration of space and advances in rocketry beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. When the Americans and Russians became friends and started flying with each other on spaceships, there was no great impetus anymore to explore the heavens.
Nowadays, except for tragic crashes, few people pay attention to space. Astronauts are no longer a combination of Christopher Columbus, Davy Crockett, and Babe Ruth but are too trivial figures for even Trivial Pursuit—after all, can anyone except rocket scientists or space junkies give the names of one or two astronauts since Christa McAuliffe? Manned space travel in the last couple of decades has been rather dull compared to the Gemini and Apollo voyages. The space shuttle recently ceased operations. NASA is a perennial target for budget cuts, even though it is arguably a better use of the taxpayers’ money than undeclared wars or bridges to nowhere or bailouts to bankers and Wall Street executives.
Thus, will we ultimately be like Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the Star Trek crew and boldly go were no man has not gone before? Or will we remain landlocked on Earth for eternity after the first moon landings? Only time or if you are into astrology — the stars — can tell.
Joe’s Maybe Memorable Quote of the Day
“Taking a trip through the space between your ears is really mind blowing.”