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...