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Atlantis & the Death of the American Myth

[1]1,230 words

On Friday, July 8, 2011, the 135th and last-ever space shuttle mission, carried out by the shuttle Atlantis, is being launched. What many Americans don’t seem to realize yet is that this effectively marks the end of a half-century of America’s adventure into space which began with John F. Kennedy’s call for America to land men on the Moon in his famous 1961 speech.

Since that time NASA carried out the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, the last of which successfully completed 6 astronaut landings on the Moon. This was followed closely by the shuttle program, which began in 1981 and lasted for 30 years. So after this illustrious record, what’s next?

The answer is: nothing. NASA had a Constellation program in development which was intended to replace the shuttle, and which it was hoped would eventually return men to the Moon and perhaps eventually go on to Mars. But last year President Obama declared that the program was hopelessly behind schedule and over-budget, and killed it, over the protests of many of the Apollo astronaut veterans. After all, when you’re engaged in two wars (four these days, counting Libya and Yemen) and trying to create and fund a lot of ambitious social programs while being trillions of dollars in debt, space travel seems a bit extravagant.

This means that from now on, if America ever wants or needs to send astronauts into space, such as to the international space station, it will have to hitch a ride with its former competitors, the Russians. (If there is any greater indicator of declining American power and wealth than that, I don’t know what it is.) And the Russians are still using the same old Soyuz rockets that they’ve been building since the 1960s. It makes you think that maybe the U.S. should have kept around a few of its Saturn V rockets from the Apollo days.

Not that manned American spaceflight is completely dead. After killing the Constellation project, Obama’s people came up with a plan by which NASA may eventually build some sort of capsule that can be attached to existing commercial satellite launchers, rockets that are built and owned by private companies rather than by NASA itself. So the dream of space travel has officially been privatized. How far off can “Planet Starbucks” be, to quote Fight Club?

I can’t get too worked up about the fate of the shuttle itself. Its technology is antiquated by today’s standards. And it was never really inspiring, since all it ever did, and all it was ever capable of doing, was to make short excursions into low-earth orbit and then come home. As an American kid growing up in the 1980s, I remember the shuttle was kind of a bummer after the previous generation had been able to experience the thrill of landing men on the Moon.

But still, the shuttle was cool. It could land like a plane rather than splashing down in the ocean as the old space capsules had done. It could be re-used many times, unlike all previous rockets. And it at least showed that we were doing something in space.

In the ’80s many of us were convinced that the shuttle was just part of a larger plan to bring the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey into reality, with routine flights to the Moon, manned missions to other planets, and Hiltons in orbit, all within our lifetimes.

Looking back after 30 years and 135 missions, it now seems that NASA was just marking time. Atlantis is the end of an era, and an indicator of the dangerous new era that America is entering.

Like any healthy civilization, America, since its birth, has always had a motivating myth to inspire its people, westward expansion being the most prominent one. In the 1960s, when American confidence was flagging in the face of apparently unstoppable Soviet expansionism and the ongoing humiliation of the Vietnam War, the goal of landing a man on the Moon helped to inspire Americans.

Yes, I’m well aware that the Apollo program was not really about the grandeur of space exploration or the desire to go there “in peace for all mankind,” but was just intended to pay the Soviet Union back for Sputnik. And I think most Americans must have known that at the time.

But still, it was exciting, and it was a good reason to do well in school or read a book or care about your country. And as a myth, it continues to be effective — “landing a man on the Moon” has been a rallying cry for defenders of America and Western civilization ever since.

While space travel was inspiring to me as a boy, in my adult years other things inspire me now. A great book or a great piece of music, or a spiritually advanced individual, or someone dedicated wholeheartedly to a good cause, mean a lot more to me these days than do astronauts or space flights.

I’ve also grown quite negative in my view of America’s role in the world, as well as of science’s ability to solve humanity’s genuine problems (and still more about scientism, or science’s elevation to the same status that rightfully belongs to religion). But in spite of all that, if America landed astronauts on the Moon or Mars, I haven’t grown so cold that it wouldn’t warm my heart.

Every great civilization has a motivating myth that gives its citizens a sense of purpose and meaning. And the United States did have that once, even when those myths were occasionally bad ones, such as “making the world safe for democracy.” But what myth can America offer today? The only myths that we have are not those which spark the imagination, one’s enthusiasm and the will, but only those by which America is trying desperately not to lose what it already has, such as the “war on terror,” which is really just a clumsy attempt to reverse America’s declining geopolitical power and grab the last of the cheap oil resources.

I really don’t know what inspires young minds today. At the risk of sounding like a young fogey (I’m only 37), perhaps that’s why the younger generation seem so materialistic and self-centered, since there’s never been much in terms of social idealism to capture their imaginations. What can America offer as something to inspire its young people? National health care? Multiculturalism? Imposing democracy by force of arms upon people who don’t want it? Bringing down the deficit? No wonder the young are more interested in worrying about their careers and their bank accounts.

I think the most frightening aspect of the end of American manned spaceflight has been the apparent lack of public outcry about it. Either people are ignorant of what’s afoot, or they are simply too jaded or worried about more immediate problems to care. Whatever the case may be, the end of the shuttle program marks the end of the last vestiges of the American myth.

I generally tend to shy away from apocalyptic collapse scenarios. Still, it cannot be denied that the United States, while it may continue to coast in some form for decades to come, has already seen its best days. The task now is not to mourn but to construct an alternative which can inspire our people for the age that will come after the American age. And I think we can do better.