Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2 Years of Aurora Array: or, Why I Am A Bad Blogger

launched this blog two years ago today, so today seems as good a day as any to get it going again after a long hiatus. I have been blogging on and off since 2006, and from the beginning I have struggled with the question: "Why blog?"

At some level I am not a fan of blogs, in the same way that I am not a fan of the Internet in general. Of course, I use the Internet all the time, but only because, as with so many other aspects of modern existence, to do without would mean to live a much harder life. I drive a car for similar reasons. But if I lived, say, in Paris, where one can easily live without a car, I would gladly do so.

The same goes for the Internet. The 21st century makes life extremely difficult--and socially marginalizing--for people who would choose to forego the Internet, electronic gadgets, social media, and the like. If I were offered the chance to live in a world resembling, say, the 1970s, when the World Wide Web did not exist and nobody but a few nerds owned a personal computer, I might be tempted to give up the Information Age and its dubious merits. (Well, I actually did live in the 1970s, long ago, but there's no going back at this point.)

As a lifelong writer and reader, I have found that the Internet has made reading seem curiously flat. Perhaps it is, in part, because everything comes to you through the same screen, filtered through the same cold, sterile window, unlike the warm sensuality of books. Some dismiss such bibliophilia as "nostalgic" or "aesthetic", but to me this only shows their pitiful failure to value nostalgia and aesthetics, both of which are deeply significant, rather than superfluous, to human life.

Those are topics that would need to be explored more in depth in later posts--which indicates part of my problem with online reading in general and blogs in particular. That is, the small space (reflecting our stunted attention spans) allowed by blogging does not give adequate room to the full wanderings of thought that are allowed by the printed word. Blogging is fine for certain types of writing... journalism or reportage, for instance, which is essentially what the word "[We]blog" means... but it is antithetical to the type of unhurried, deeply focused thought to which books are eminently hospitable.

It is not just the short space provided by the blog medium, but the immediacy of blog publishing that is part of the problem. To publish now... that is the imperative of blogging. Again, this may be perfect for journalism, but hardly conducive to the extended reflection, careful crafting, and private evolution that great literature has always required. A blog is like exposing one's notes, one's random jottings and tentative thoughts, to the whole world. This may be just fine and dandy for some people... apparently for many in our exhibitionist, social media-obsessed society... but not the most comfortable zone for a traditional writer who guards his slowly-evolving work until it is ready for the light of day, fully thought out and refined into a work that is meant to be permanent and settled, with the notes only exposed much later, often posthumously.

So I have struggled with understanding what my particular purpose in blogging is, or ought to be. By nature I am not a journalist, interested primarily in chronicling and/or commenting on the specifics of day-to-day events, whether they be in the global, national, local, or personal sphere. I am instead of a more philosophical and poetic bent, which means that I focus on the big picture, reflecting on the universals and generalities of life and the world, rather than obsessing over the particulars and details of What's Happening Now. And this type of deeply reflective thinking and writing makes an awkward fit for the medium of blogging, or indeed for the Internet in general. It is a style that is much more at home in books.

Some say that extended prose (to say nothing of poetry) is going the way of the dodo, a victim of our hyperactive, information-saturated, attention-deficient times. If that is true, then real culture, too, is endangered, for culture requires leisure, which involves the ability to be still and silent and to have space for reflection and deeper, fuller kinds of perception and experience. The blog, and electronic communications in general, may have their place in our current intellectual ecology, as we speak in brief snatches to hurried passersby--but hopefully, for the sake of culture, these energetic new colonizers will not crowd out and destroy the older, more slow-moving species.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, the magnum opus of director Terrence Malick (this being only his 5th feature film in his 40-year career), like many groundbreaking works of art, seems to polarize its audience. On the one side, there are those who view its slow, often abstract 2 1/2 hour running time, filled with far more philosophical musing than coherent plot, as either incredibly boring or rather pretentious (or both). On the other side (the majority, I think, of people who view this amazing picture), there are those filmgoers and critics who sit spellbound and leave the theater feeling as though they have just had something very closely resembling a religious experience.

As a number of critics have pointed out, The Tree of Life is in fact, in the best possible sense, a religious work of art. Despite the decidedly Judeo-Christian references throughout the film, it is not heavy-handed or preachy. It is instead something like an extended hymn, a meditation, a poem or symphony, in celebration of life, and in fact of all creation. If approached with the right frame of mind, it is indeed as profoundly moving and wondrously beautiful a movie as one is likely to see, raising the motion picture medium to the level of high art to a degree that films rarely do.

If The Tree of Life is a hymn, it is one that is both glorious and somber, celebratory and elegiac. It is this interplay between the sadness and the joy of life that gives the movie its subtle but intense emotional power.

The movie begins with a quotation from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? ...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" We are then introduced to the O'Brien family at a tragic moment: the mother receives news of the death of her 19-year-old son. Distraught, she calls the father at work, who listens to the terrible news in silent shock.

Switching to the modern day, we follow the morose middle-aged narrator, Jack (he is not exactly a narrator, but that is as good a term as any), on the anniversary of his brother's death. He spends the day in a pensive state, and most of the film from this point seems to be an extended meditation of philosophical questioning, spiritual wrestling, and bittersweet memory that takes place in Jack's mind.

The first part of this meditation consists of utterly majestic scenes of cosmic creation. Through the magic of the largely old-school (non-CGI) special effects of Douglas Trumbull (the man responsible for the far-out effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey), combined with the equally powerful magic of classical music, we are witness to the birth of the universe, then of the planet earth, and finally of life itself. These scenes are magnificent and sublime, and in a strange way, deeply moving.

When we finally arrive in the 20th century, it is through the birth of Jack, the eldest of three sons in the O'Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s (this part of the movie is obviously autobiographical on Malick's part). The majority of the movie follows the course of Jack's early life through the eyes of his childhood memory, from infancy and toddlerhood up to early adolescence. This part of the film is just as magnificent and sublime in its own way as the creation of the universe sequences, as it shows us the wondrous array of sensory experiences and emotional highs and lows of life through a child's eyes, in all the vivid detail and luminous intensity which that viewpoint implies.

Rather than telling a conventional story, Malick chooses to show us a series of memories, which we move through by way of association and intuition rather than via a neatly constructed plot--in other words, closer to the way we actually remember our lives. This realism of memory makes the story of Jack's life much fuller and richer, both visually and emotionally, than it would have been if the story had been told more prosaically and linearly. If The Tree of Life is nothing else, it is a work of poetry. In addition to scenes that dramatize the O'Briens' complex family life, from the tenderness of parental love to the ugliness of family conflict, we are shown many seemingly random memories, for instance of a young child observing the patterns on a plate, a group of children looking at cows up close in a field, etc. The movie seems to be telling us that each of these memories has meaning and significance, because each one is a unique experience of the miracle that is the world, a communication of something marvelous and divine.

If one were to pin down the meaning of this movie to a central theme, this may very well be it... that the world, and especially life, is a miracle. Even after the gradual loss of innocence or the sudden loss of loved ones, this film seems to be telling us, it is possible to regain the joyous wonderment and awe at the world that we possessed naturally as children, if only we remember to open our eyes and see it once again for what it is.

If you want a conventional summer movie full of action or dialogue or a tidy plot, by all means do not go out and spend your money and time on The Tree of Life. However, if you are open to sitting back for a couple of hours and experiencing a work of stunning visual and emotional beauty and grandeur, or witnessing a majestic yet intimately human story that can't be summed up neatly, yet remains powerful and profound; or if you seek to be told a magnificent story through images and music as much as through words, in the language of memory and love rather than strict logic.... a story that may leave you both shaken and haunted in the most tender way, perhaps even touched by joy and hope, wonder and beauty, that glow with a strange otherworldly grace and ache like sadness... then The Tree of Life may be just the movie you've been waiting for.


Here is one of the beautiful music pieces from the film, Couperin's Les Barricades Mysterieuses.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

T+50: The Last Shuttle

On the early morning of Sunday, April 12, 1981, I watched with eager anticipation as the countdown for the first space shuttle launch drew to a close. As Columbia's engines lit up and it finally, amazingly, lifted off the launch pad, I exclaimed, with a dorky bit of 10-year-old boy enthusiasm, "America, you've done it!"

And why not? After the national disillusionment and malaise of the 70s--Watergate, Vietnam, gas lines, hostages in Iran--the space shuttle was one of the things that began to lift American spirits in the brave new decade of the 1980s. To a child in the 70s, the space shuttle had been the shining promise of the future of space flight, the sleek, winged spaceship that would take us straight to 2001, and now it had finally become a reality.

A 1970s vision of the space shuttle.
After my exclamation, I ran outside of our Florida trailer and looked eastward, where I saw the white column of Columbia's exhaust rising into the bright morning sky.

22 years later, on a far different morning, I awoke to the alarming news that the space shuttle was "breaking up". The burning fragments of Columbia fell down the blue sky throughout the morning on TV, seeming never to reach the earth, like its ill-fated crew.

And now, 30 years since the first shuttle, NASA prepares to launch the 135th and last shuttle. For those with any interest in humanity's journey into space, it is a time for reflection. How do we evaluate the space shuttle program? Was it a success? A failure? Or some mixture of both? How will its place in history be regarded by future historians? Did it truly progress mankind's venture beyond the earth, or did it largely just tread water, unnecessarily keeping us in low earth orbit for decades after the moon landings?

It is true that the space shuttle did not deliver on much of its promise. It did not make space flight routine, nor particularly economical. And even though shuttle missions never actually became routine, the romance wore off after awhile and the shuttle began to seem as everyday and prosaic as an airliner rather than exciting and futuristic. People stopped paying attention, the media stopped broadcasting launches and landings or even mentioning it on the nightly news. Only when disaster struck, in 1986 with the Challenger explosion and in 2003 with the disintegration of Columbia, did most people remember that the space shuttle even existed. Even so, few seemed to understand or care about what the space shuttle did.

So what did the space shuttle do? In the 1980s, pre-Challenger, it launched a number of commercial satellites--a goal which came to be seen as not quite worthy of risking human lives post-Challenger--and it also carried a number of science missions, including Spacelab. A Buck Rogers-type rocket pack was tested in space. There were a few top secret military missions. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched, then repaired, and gave us the most awe-inspiring views of the universe we had ever seen. Space probes were launched across the solar system. In the post-Cold War 1990s, the shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir. Perhaps most importantly of all in the long-term history of space exploration, the International Space Station was constructed... and, if not quite as stylishly and elegantly as what Stanley Kubrick envisioned, the space shuttle did ferry crews back and forth to this large orbiting space station, just in time for the actual year 2001.

The space shuttle did not deliver either on the promise of opening up space flight to the masses, but it did open it up to a wider variety of people. Not only did it carry America's first female and non-white astronauts--a fact due more to changing social attitudes than to the technology--but it also enabled non-astronauts to journey into space: a schoolteacher (who tragically did not make it), sitting members of Congress, and even aging Mercury astronauts (well, one, anyway).

Speaking of the Mercury program, this first U.S. manned space flight program, the one that put the first American in orbit, was followed a few years later by Project Apollo, which put the first man on the moon. In between the exciting beginning and the majestic culmination of the race to the moon, there was Project Gemini. Gemini did not go anywhere new. It went into near-earth orbit just as Mercury had done. But it tested many new techniques and technologies that were essential to the success of the moon landings, including orbital rendezvous and docking and extravehicular activities (that would be "spacewalks" for all you laymen). In other words, Gemini served as a bridge. The middle is usually not the most exciting part of the journey, but it's hard to get to the destination without passing through it.

In a larger context, the early space program leading up to the moon landings was the exciting beginning of the journey, and our next ventures into space--back to the moon, on to Mars--will represent a new pinnacle of human space exploration.

In between, there was the space shuttle. With the vastly increased toolbox that the shuttle program developed, humanity is now more prepared to extend its reach across the solar system. Like Gemini, the shuttle itself did not go there, but it made the next giant step much more possible.

Back in the shuttle's halcyon days of the early 1980s, I read a short story by Isaac Asimov called "The Last Shuttle". As the story progressed, various surprising clues were dropped which made it evident that the launch of the titular craft was taking place further and further into the future than the reader might originally have imagined. Finally, at the end, it is revealed that "the last shuttle" is lifting the last human beings who remain on earth into space, the rest of humanity having already moved off-world. Once the last shuttle roars off into the blue sky, earth is left abandoned--a peaceful, humanless paradise.

I remember that story now, on the eve of the real-life last shuttle. But the story is enough to make me wonder if this is really the last shuttle after all. I doubt that humanity will ever actually move en masse off the earth, doubt even more that it would be in any way desirable to do so, but perhaps the larger point conveyed by the story was that the shuttle was the beginning of some distant, as yet unforeseeable end. The shock of the story is that this--the first launch of the space shuttle in 1981, for which occasion the story was written--might culminate in something as ultimate as that.

It is surely too grandiose to imagine that the space shuttle will be seen historically as the beginning of the end of humanity's residence on planet Earth. Space shuttle romanticism, even of the less grandiose type, is as quaint now as being amazed by PCs and Atari video games. So we will not think of the space shuttle as having been the beginning of the end.

When the last shuttle rises from the launch pad this Friday, it will only be the end of the beginning.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ode to the B-Movie: or, Why Ed Wood is a better director than James Cameron

Science fiction films, and particularly those in the low-budget subgenre known as B-movies, have a hard time finding respect. At least since Star Wars (1977), science fiction movies have in some sense become "cool", like the scrawny, awkward nerd who transformed into a handsome, musclebound star athlete (who still wears glasses when he is not on the field). But the old sci-fi B-movies of the 50's and 60's still garner "bomb" ratings from all self-respecting film critics and serve as little more than fodder for mockery and laughter for most viewers.

But is all this derision really fair? After all, when Leonard Maltin gives Citizen Kane a (quite justly deserved) 4-star rating and Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s anti-masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space a "bomb" (0 stars), one must ask if it even makes sense to judge these two pictures by the same set of cinematic or artistic standards. Was Ed Wood even attempting to create the same type of work as Orson Welles? Actually, if one goes by Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood, it would seem that the answer is perhaps yes, that Wood might just have been deluded enough to believe that he was creating high art in the fashion of his hero. Or perhaps he was self-aware enough to realize that he and Mr. Welles were operating not so much in different leagues as in different spheres of film art.

The primary reason, it seems to me, that B-movies get the short shrift they do is their poor technique. It's true that great art usually requires great technical skill to pull off successfully and effectively, but technical skill alone is not sufficient. In fact, enormous budgets and the most sophisticated special effects can often produce rubbish that some film buffs may find far less worthwhile and interesting than many of the cheaply and quickly made B-movies tossed out by the likes of Wood, Roger Corman, and many others whose names are less known.

Witness James Cameron, the director of such blockbusters as Titanic and Avatar, two of the most expensive and most commercially successful movies of all time. Such bloated, grandiose, and self-important pictures, like many others that are churned out by the modern Hollywood machine, seem to be attempting to reach not only for box office success but also some level of artistic seriousness which they sorely lack. Long on special effects and spectacle, short on imagination and vision, today's big budget spectacles are the true bombs. James Cameron perhaps likes to think of himself as a serious film director, but he is actually a glorified purveyor of kitsch.

What many critics and viewers do not seem to understand about B-movies is that they cannot be judged by the same standards--at least not the same technical standards--as big-budget pictures. Many of their technical flaws are the result of low, in many cases practically nonexistent, budgets. And there is no wrong in giggling when, for instance, you can see the strings holding up the spaceship. But the technical flaws alone do not necessarily make these films any less effective in accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. B-movies vary widely in terms of their worth and interest, but what makes them successful are the same non-technical qualities that make any film successful: a good story, entertainment value, and above all, especially in the genre of science fiction: imagination and wonder.

I have watched countless science fiction movies from the 50's and 60's in my day, ranging from venerable classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to bottom-of-the-barrel fare like Robot Monster, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and of course Plan 9 from Outer Space. What I can say about the sci-fi films of this era is that their value as art and as entertainment--and not merely of the unintended comedy variety--has no direct correlation to their budgets. There is, however, a very close correlation to their writers', producers', and directors' imaginative visions, even if they were prevented by a lack of finances and/or a lack of technical competence from realizing these visions quite as smoothly or convincingly as a lot of bigger-budget pictures.

What is required above all in enjoying all that a good B-movie has to offer is a childlike sense of imagination, the type of pretend that allows the make-believe to be real despite the boring and irrelevant protestations of the rational and empirical mind, and an equally childlike sense of wonder, that ability to marvel at the world and its infinite possibilities, its strangeness and delight. The virtue of many a low-budget science fiction film is in that tingling sense of wonder or horror (often both simultaneously), and in that thrilling imaginative vision of the universe, that it is eminently capable of communicating to the child in all of us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

T + 50: At Home in the Universe

Today, April 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the flight of Vostok 1, which made Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first human being in space. For half a century now, Homo sapiens has been a spacefaring species, the first earthly creature to venture beyond the atmosphere of this planet into what we call "outer space", which is of course almost the whole of physical reality. It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that we have always been in space, and that Yuri was the first human to leap off the tiny dust particle that we perceive as "the world" and to float apart from it for a spectacular, brief moment, alone in the inconceivably immense, dark sea of which our world is but an infinitesimally small part.

In those days, space flight was imbued with the aura of wonder, the way the world is when we are young children. It was perhaps inevitable that the glow would fade with time. Yet the disappearance of magic from the world, which we perceive as the product of maturing vision, like eyes adjusting to the bright light of day, is only an illusion. Adulthood does bring certain types of clarity, the corrective lenses of age that help us outgrow simplistic or simply false ideas. But age also brings blindness, and one does not need to be very old at all to have become blinded to the wonder and the beauty, the mystery and the majesty of the world we live in. It is still there, just as surely as it was when we were very young; it is we who have changed and become unable to see its luster.

Such has been the fate of space travel. Our space probes have beamed back a multitude of workmanlike photos of planets and moons, revealing these once-mysterious worlds to be as exotic and interesting as vacant lots. But this too is an illusion. It is like looking up one's childhood home and yard on Google Maps and seeing it revealed as the most plain, ordinary, and unremarkable place on earth, worlds removed from the happy, magical kingdom that you know it was.

The question is: which contains more truth and reality? The objective facts provided by the cold, detached view of science (or Google), or the subjective thoughts and feelings that make up our human response to reality? The mere facts about the world, like the dry recitations of an accountant, or the rich, meaningful experiences we have of the world, the stuff that makes up memories and dreams?

Outer space is still there, above our heads, its unfathomable depths miraculously visible to us on clear nights, when we can simply look up and with our own eyes behold stars that we could never reach even if we traveled at the speed of light for a thousand years. The amazing thing is not so much that we can now, by the aid of our advanced technology, travel upward in a feeble attempt to reach those stars, as the fact that we are already there. For, of course, we are already, and always have been, in the universe. The exciting thing about space travel is not that we are venturing "into" space, as though we had previously been outside of it, but simply that we are exploring it, finally beginning to experience more than just one tiny little speck floating in the vast ocean.

It is the objective, scientific view that sees the truth that our globe is a vanishingly small part of everything that is. But the childlike vision that takes in more of reality than the sober "realism" of adulthood knows a deeper truth: that significance has nothing to do with size, and that the earth we live on is incredibly interesting and important. The immensity of space does not diminish its stature, but only makes us realize that beyond the wide earth, the world we call home is a far bigger and more wondrous place than we could ever imagine.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Enlightenment Was Wrong

In his op-ed column "The New Humanism", David Brooks points to new scientific research which suggests that the Enlightenment view of human nature that Western society has been operating on for the past two or three hundred years is fundamentally flawed. This would be the view of human beings as primarily rational, individual creatures, whose rationality must constantly guard against the unruly passions of the emotions lest all civilization collapse.

The Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment view of human nature, believing that it ignored the richness and depth of the emotional, spiritual, social, cultural, and biological aspects of our nature, but despite the best efforts of many a great poet (including William Blake, who painted the somewhat mocking portrait of Isaac Newton above), the rationalist view has come to dominate the workings of Western society.

This rationalistic view, which ascribes value to things (and people) in terms of numbers, facts, money, statistics, test scores, degrees, credentials, and other quantifiable criteria, now finds itself challenged, according to Brooks, by a wide array of research in the sciences and social sciences (themselves, ironically, the products of Enlightenment rationalism) which shows that the Enlightenment view of human beings--as rational individuals who must constantly guard against the misshaping forces of the irrational and the social--is just way too simplistic.

The new research shows a few interesting things:
"First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place.

"Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.

"Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships."

So, in at least a few ways, the Romantics now find themselves vindicated by, of all things, Enlightenment science. (The last point, about human beings as social animals, is a somewhat more complex matter since the Romantics were capable of glamorizing the individual in rebellion against society while at the same time romanticizing one's culture, people, homeland, or nation.)

The new research also brings to attention a number of human talents that are not normally valued or even thought about in our bureaucratic, mechanistic civilization, including such neglected classics as equipoise and sympathy, as well as more exotic-sounding things like attunement, metis, and limerence.

Maybe someday soon, as Brooks suggests, our culture will be transformed by these new findings, just as it was reshaped by Freud's theories of human nature a century ago. What will Western civilization look like when it begins to relearn the old, forgotten truths that human beings are concrete souls and not just abstract minds, souls who long to belong to something greater than ourselves, and not just producing, consuming machines?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

T + 50: The Bus To Nowhere

For those in my generation who were children when the space shuttle program started, it might seem strange now (or perhaps just make us feel old) to find ourselves at the end of the space shuttle era. In 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia first roared aloft early on a bright Sunday morning in April, the space shuttle seemed new, futuristic, exciting, and even a little glamorous. During the second and third launches, which occurred during school hours, my 5th grade class spent the day watching the launch coverage on TV.

By the time the space shuttle became operational, in late 1982, I decided that it was no longer worth paying a lot of attention since the whole idea of the space shuttle was to make space flight "routine". Despite the tragedy of the Challenger explosion in 1986 shocking us into the realization that human space flight would "never be routine", the general public, my space nerd self included, relegated the space shuttle to the storage closet of its consciousness. Few saw it as even remotely central to current American or world history as many had seen the space program of the 1960s. Only on rare occasions, such as the return to space of John Glenn in 1998 and above all the destruction of Columbia itself in 2003, did the average American pay any attention to the space shuttle, and in the case of the Columbia disaster, it was largely to question why, exactly, we were doing this anyway.

The question is worth the asking. Why indeed? Why, after landing on the moon "before the decade [of the 1960s] is out", did we spend the next 40 years focusing the resources and energies of our national space program on a shuttle... essentially a bus between earth and near-earth space? Given the tremendous strides the space program made in the 60s (from the first American in space in 1961 to landing on the moon in 1969), the space program since the 1970s has been nothing if not tame. Little wonder that people lost interest and enthusiasm. People are inspired by poetry and adventure, by daring and mystery, not by prosaic workaday chores and errands which the poor space shuttle, the workhorse of NASA, has so often been consigned to do.

The space shuttle was compromised before it even got started because of the Nixon administration's stinginess. The whole concept of a space shuttle is to provide taxi service between the earth and an orbiting space station, as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It might have seemed at the time (1972) that NASA being committed to developing a space shuttle was bringing us one step closer to the fulfillment of the future imagined by that film, but there was one crucial flaw: the space station was left out of the picture. So the shuttle was doomed to become, for many years at least, a bus to nowhere. Many of the early flights were devoted to launching telecommunications satellites for corporations. Hardly romantic or inspiring.

One of the sad ironies of the space shuttle program is that, even though it never actually succeeded in making space flight routine (which had indeed been its primary reason for existence), it did succeed in making it feel routine to the American public. This is not the fault of the space shuttle itself. The shuttle, born out of compromise due to budget limitations and a lack of political will, was perhaps doomed from birth not to live up to its full potential. The shortsightedness of our national space agency and our Congress only further prevented it from realizing its full potential by being what it was meant to be: a humble but integral part of a fully functioning space program--a space program, and therefore a space shuttle, that had some clue about what it was there for and where, exactly, it was going.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Cowboy Code

Here is the Cowboy Code, as laid down by "Cowboy No. 1", Gene Autry.

The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

He must always tell the truth.

He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.

He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

He must help people in distress.

He must be a good worker.

He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.

He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.

The Cowboy is a patriot.

Friday, January 7, 2011

T + 50: Whence the Vision and the Dream?

Left: An abandoned launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

A number of years ago I had what seemed at the time a rather strange and unbelievable idea for a story. It took place sometime in the future, and involved a couple of children who were fascinated by space travel--which to them was entirely a thing of the past, a sort of romantic historical curiosity, the way 20th century children viewed pirates or cowboys-and-Indians. Rather than futuristic, rockets and space for these children were quaint symbols of bygone days.

Today, with the looming retirement of the space shuttle, the cancellation of the Constellation program (and therefore no clear successor to the shuttle), and a general lack of public interest in and political support for space exploration (which has been the case since the moon landing some 40 years ago), that story premise no longer seems so far-fetched.

Back in the 50s and 60s, space exploration seemed like the obvious next step in human history. This was especially true for many in the U.S., a country which, as one of the world's two great superpowers, saw itself as leading the way for the rest of the world (at least the "free world"). All the frontiers of the United States had been explored and settled; a prosperous and (more or less) peaceful postwar American society, with ever-advancing technology and science, was poised to begin humanity's next great adventure: exploring outer space, which of course is simply to say the universe beyond our small planet ("this island earth", as the title of one 50s sci-fi film described it).

To understand what happened to the dream of spaceflight, it might be worth asking why we had the dream in the first place. Where did this idea--the idea that space exploration was the inevitable next phase of human history--come from? Or, to put it another way, how did space travel move from the realm of children's fantasy (a la Buck Rogers) to a realistic, serious expectation for the near future?

Some say it all started with the publication in 1949 of a book called The Conquest of Space. With its magical paintings by Chesley Bonestell, this hugely influential book sparked the imaginations of many children and adults and made space travel suddenly seem like a real possibility in one's own lifetime.

Then, in the early 1950s, Collier's magazine published a series of articles, again with many wondrous illustrations by Bonestell, elaborating how "Man Will Conquer Space Soon".

Both this book and these articles were written, and the ideas within them dreamed up, by what we might describe as a bunch of "space nerds". Foremost among them was the famed German rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who was instrumental in helping to develop modern rocketry.

But why did the ideas of a few brainy rocket scientists and space nerds, who had been laboring for decades in obscurity as members of "rocket" or "interplanetary" societies, so capture the popular imagination in the years after World War II? What exactly was it that so captivated our imaginations and excited us about leaving the safe, familiar confines of the world we had always known and venturing out into the great black infinite abyss?

Some would say that, despite all the practical justifications for space travel (whether economic, political, military, scientific, or technological), the essential reason we want to "go there", the truest and deepest reason, the real reason that we are too pragmatic and prosaic to admit... is simply because human beings have an innate urge to explore.

In this view, space exploration needs no justification outside itself... it is indeed obvious. Of course we have a drive to explore. Exploration and expansion to new territories, be they literal or figurative, are an essential and inescapable part of human history. It is part and parcel of human nature to be curious about what is "out there", beyond what we know, and to seek to discover for ourselves some part of reality as yet unknown to us.

But just because the exploration of the "final frontier" might be obvious as a desire or a goal does not mean that it is inevitable as an actual action or event. When one loses inspiration, motivation, and vision, one is not likely to achieve a long-held dream. The dream will not automatically turn itself into reality... but the dream must first exist before it can come true.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

T + 50: 50 Years of Man in Space

The year 2011 marks two important anniversaries in the history of human spaceflight:

  • 30 years since the start of the space shuttle program, which is due to come to an end this year.
  • 50 years since the start of human spaceflight, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (pictured) became the first man in space.
And of course, it is now a full decade on since the once-fabled year 2001, made mythic by Stanley Kubrick's masterful film of the same name (see my earlier post about that film).

Here's today's $64,000 question: Should 2001: A Space Odyssey be reclassified as historical fiction?

In this new occasional series, T + 50, I aim to explore the significance of human spaceflight, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What used to be seen as the crowning pinnacle of modern civilization and the very symbol of humanity's future had become passe long before we arrived in the 21st century. Were we all just deluded by science fiction fantasies back in the 1950s and 60s? Or did we lose a grand and optimistic vision of expansion beyond the earth? Why should we care about exploring space anyway?

As a lifelong space fan, these are questions that have haunted me for most of my adult life and that I wish to investigate further in the present series. Whatever your level of interest in outer space and its exploration, I hope you enjoy taking this thought journey with me.

As the Amazing Criswell once said, "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future."

T minus 3... 2... 1...