Aviation and astronautics were once my prime interests. As a student pilot, at the age of 20, when aviation was much more dangerous than it is today, I concluded that if I could fly for ten years before being killed in a crash, I would be willing to trade an ordinary lifetime for that experience. In the ’30s, I assisted Robert Goddard, the father of spatial conquests. Standing with him on New Mexico plains at the foot of his converted-windmill launching tower, it seemed to me that the greatest adventure man could have would be to travel out through space.
What motivates man to great adventures? I wonder how accurately these motives can be analyzed, even by the participants themselves. When I think of my own flights in the early years of aviation, I realize that my motives were as obvious, as subtle and as intermixed as the waves on oceans I flew over. But I can say quite definitely that they sprang more from intuition than from rationality, and that the love of flying outweighed practical purposes — important as the latter often were.
For instance, I believed that a nonstop flight between New York and Paris would advance aviation’s progress and add to my prestige as a pilot — with ensuing material rewards. In seeking financial backing for that 1927 flight, I argued that it would bring closer the golden era of air transport I felt was bound to come. But without my love of flying and adventure, and motives I cannot even now discern clearly, it was a flight I would never have attempted.
Then, as the art of flying transposed to a science, I found my interest in airplanes decreasing. Rationally I welcomed the advances that came with self-starters, closed cockpits, radio and automatic pilots. Intuitively I felt revolted by them, for they upset the balance between intellect and senses that had made my profession such a joy. And so, as intuition had led me into aviation in the first place, it led me back to an early boyhood interest, the contemplation of life.
Gradually I diverted hours from aviation into biological research. How mechanical, how mystical was man? Could longevity be extended? Was death an unavoidable portion of life’s cycle or might physical immortality be achieved through scientific methods? What would be the result of artificially perfusing a head severed from its body? This question, especially, intrigued me and resulted in my working intermittently for several years in the Department of Experimental Surgery of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. There, in collaboration with the great surgeon Alexis Carrel — he developing the operative techniques, and I the design of equipment — I constructed an apparatus that, for the first time, could pump synthetic blood through organs without the entrance of infection.
To me, my years at the Rockefeller Institute involved great adventures. They convinced me that the cycle of life and death is essential to life’s progress, and that physical immortality would be undesirable even if it could be achieved. I found the mechanics of life less interesting than the mystical qualities they manifest. With these conclusions, I began studying supersensory phenomena and, in 1937, flew to India in the hope of gaining insight to yogic practices.
But the approach and explosion of World War II immersed me in military aviation and international politics. Man’s fundamental need of survival, for both individual and group, separated me from projects I would have carried out in peaceful times. After our fighting war was over (I had worked on the production of bombers and fighters, and flown 50 combat missions with the Army Air Force and Marines), the cold war with Russia held me to militarily oriented tasks — the study of new weapons, the reorganization of the Strategic Air Command, the essential need of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
I served for seven years as a member of scientific ballistic-missile committees, first under the Air Force and then under the Department of Defense. At the end of this time, with Atlases and Titans in position, with Minutemen coming and Polaris submarines under way, I felt our United States had achieved the indestructible power to destroy any enemy who might attack. But I had become alarmed about the effect our civilization was having on continents and islands my military missions took me over — the slashed forests, the eroded mountains, the disappearing wilderness and wildlife. I believed some of the policies we were following to insure our near-future strength and survival were likely to lead to our distant-future weakness and destruction. Also, I was tired of windowless briefing rooms, Pentagon corridors, and the drabness of standardized airbases. I wanted to regain contact with the mystery and beauty of nature.
I resigned from the ballistic-missile committee and declined a position in the new civil agency being set up for the development of space. I decided to study environments, peoples, and ways of life in various areas of the world. To make this possible, I returned to my prewar position of consultant to Pan American World Airways.
Wilderness expeditions in Africa, Eurasia, and the American continents brought me to an appreciation of nature’s extraordinary wisdom. I found myself in the fascinating position of moving back and forth between the ultracivilized on the one hand and the ultraprimitive on the other, with a resulting clarity of perspective on areas between — a perspective that drove into my bones, as well as into my mind, the fact that in instinct rather than in intellect is manifest the cosmic plan of life.
Then, a few months ago, I received an invitation from Apollo 8’s astronauts to attend the launching of their mission to orbit the moon. This plunged me back into astronautics as World War II had plunged me back into aviation, though for a period of days instead of years. I was literally hypnotized by the launching. I have spent most of a lifetime in close contact with test flying and man-controlled power; but I have never experienced anything to compare to that mission of Apollo 8.
Three miles away from the pad, where I stood watching with free-from-duty astronauts, the size of the rocket still seemed huge. When ignition came, clouds of smoke and flame churned like a storm’s convulsions; and when the sound waves struck me, I shook with the earth itself.
Above that flashing, billowing chaos, the prow of the rocket rose. In it I visualized the three men I had lunched with hours before, strapped into position like test pilots, tensed to emergency procedures and to the dials of the instruments they watched, men actually launched on a voyage to the moon! For a moment, reality and memory contorted and Robert Goddard stood watching at my side. Was he now the dream; his dream, the reality?
During the first seconds of the Apollo’s inching upward, my sensation was intensified by a vision of the last launching I had witnessed, that of a big military missile which rose three or four feet, faltered, and then crumpled into explosion — an explosion seemingly less violent than that smothering the whole aft end of the Apollo.
My body staggered with the rocket’s effort to lift above its tower, relaxed as it leapt upward into air, thrilled as the ball of fire, with its astronauts, diminished in the vastness of space. Here, after epoch-measured trials of evolution, earth’s life was voyaging to another celestial body. Here one saw our civilization flowering toward the stars. Here modern man had been rewarded for his confidence in science and technology. Soon he would be orbiting the moon.
Talking to astronauts and engineers, I felt an almost overwhelming desire to reenter the fields of astronautics — with their scientific committees, laboratories, factories and blockhouses, possibly to voyage into space myself. But I know I will not return to them, despite limitless possibilities for invention, exploration, and adventure.
Why not? Decades spent in contact with science and its vehicles have directed my mind and senses to areas beyond their reach. I now see scientific accomplishment as a path, not an end; a path leading to and disappearing in mystery. Science, in fact, forms many paths branching from the trunk of human progress; and on every periphery they end in the miraculous. Following these paths far enough, and long enough, one must eventually conclude that science itself is a miracle — like the awareness of man arising from and then disappearing in the apparent nothingness of space. Rather than nullifying religion and proving that “God is dead,” science enhances spiritual values by revealing the magnitudes and minitudes — from cosmos to atom — through which man extends and of which he is composed.
Forty-two years ago, bucking a headwind on a flight in my monoplane between New York and St. Louis, I tried to look into the future beyond man’s conquest of the air. As the wheel had opened land to modern travel, and the hull the sea, wings had opened the relatively universal sky. Only space lay beyond. Could we ever extend our travels into space? If so, it seemed we must develop rockets and their jet propulsion. Such dreaming and reasoning brought me in contact with physicists, chemists, and engineers in the explosives industry — and eventually with Robert Goddard. Who then could foretell that, as soon as 1968, men would hurtle around the moon and back?
Now, again, I try to penetrate the future. What travel may, someday, take place beyond our solar-system space? What vehicles can we devise to extend the range of rocket ships as they have extended the range of aircraft? Scientific knowledge argues that space vehicles can never attain the speed of light, which makes a puny penetration of the universe within a human lifespan; and that, therefore, cosmic distances will confine our physical explorations to those planets which orbit the sun.
As wings and propellers once limited man to earth’s thicker atmosphere, scientifically established principles now seem to limit him to the space-territory of the minor star he orbits. We are blocked by lack of time as we were once blocked by lack of air. Mars and Venus may mark dead ends for spaceship travel, unless we break through physical laws and construct still-more-advanced vehicles.
But by establishing these new planetary “dead ends,” are we cracking open the entrance to another era, as aviation cracked open that of astronautics — one that will surpass the era of science as the era of science surpassed that of religious superstition? Following the paths of science, we become constantly more aware of mysteries beyond scientific reach. In these vaguely apprehended azimuths, I think the great adventures of the future lie — in voyages inconceivable by our 20th Century rationality — beyond the solar system, through distant galaxies, possibly through peripheries untouched by time and space.
I believe early entrance to this era can be attained by the application of our scientific knowledge not to life’s mechanical vehicles but to the essence of life itself: to the infinite and infinitely evolving qualities that have resulted in the awareness, shape, and character of man. I believe this application is necessary to the very survival of mankind.
Science and technology inform us that, after millions of years of successful evolution, human life is now deteriorating genetically and environmentally at an alarming and exponential rate. Basically, we seem to be retrograding rather than evolving. We have only to look about us to verify this fact: to see megalopolizing cities, the breakdown of nature, the pollution of air, water, and earth; to see crime, vice and dissatisfaction webbing like a cancer across the surface of our world. Does this mark an end or a beginning? The answer, of course, depends on our perception and the action we take.
Every era opens with its challenges, and they cannot be met successfully by elaborating methods of the past. Our technologies become inadequate; but among our sciences — paleontology, genetics, physics, astronomy, atomics — are those that still can point a way, shaping concepts of life, time, and space.
We know that tens of thousands of years ago, man departed from both the hazards and the security of instinct’s natural selection, and that his intellectual reactions have become too powerful to permit him ever to return. It seems obvious that to achieve the maximum scope of awareness, even to survive as a species, we must contrive a new process of evolutionary selection. We must find a way to blend with our present erratic tyranny of mind the countless, subtle and still-little-known elements that created the tangible shape of man and his intangible extensions. Through the eons these elements have raised the human complex to a sensitivity which recognizes that both the material and the ethereal are varying forms of basic essence.
That is why I have turned my attention from technological progress to life, from the civilized to the wild. In wildness there is a lens to the past, to the present, and to the future, offered to us for the looking — a direction, a successful selection, an awareness of values that confronts us with the need for and the means of our salvation. Let us never forget that wildness has developed life, including the human species. By comparison, our own accomplishments are trivial.
If we can combine our knowledge of science with the wisdom of wildness, if we can nurture civilization through roots in the primitive, man’s potentialities appear to be unbounded. Through his evolving awareness, and his awareness of that awareness, he can merge with the miraculous — to which we can attach what better name than “God”? And in this merging, as long sensed by intuition but still only vaguely perceived by rationality, experience may travel without need for accompanying life.
Will we then find life to be only a stage, though an essential one, in a cosmic evolution of which our evolving awareness is beginning to become aware? Will we discover that only without spaceships can we reach the galaxies; that only without cyclotrons can we know the interior of atoms? To venture beyond the fantastic accomplishments of this physically fantastic age, sensory perception must combine with the extrasensory, and I suspect that the two will prove to be different faces of each other. I believe it is through sensing and thinking about such concepts that great adventures of the future will be found.
America First: 1939–1941
The Challenger Disaster: Lessons for the Right
The Hero in All of Us
Lovely, Dark, & Deep: The Farthest: Voyager in Space
Porco Rosso: The Italian Batman
The Plot Against America First Part Four: HBO’s The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America First Part Three: Who Wanted War?