Once upon a time there were dreamers, people who believed we could go beyond the boundaries of everything we know and think we know. They had been around for centuries – explorers like the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who not only sailed throughout Asia, but led trade expeditions on behalf of the Chinese emperor Zhu Di throughout the middle east, Africa, essentially all of the known world, decades before Christopher Columbus even dreamed of sailing west. Zheng He and his voyages were fantastic, they developed wealth for the empire, as well as immeasurable prestige. Ultimately, the Chinese turned inward, away from these voyages, going as far as making construction of ships and long distance voyages a capital offense. China concluded that there was no benefit in looking beyond what was observable, what was beyond their grasp. With this in mind, is there something we can take away from this on July 20, 2013? In a word, absolutely.
Today we celebrate the 44th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, a landing that a mere decade before was itself a fantasy. When NASA landed the lunar module known as “The Eagle” it meant that the space race was “over.” But there was something more important going on. The “dreamers” had a victory, and it wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone. It was for the thousands who had worked on the space program, and believed that, even in the failures of the early NASA launches, striving to exceed one’s grasp was worthwhile. It was a victory for everyone who looked to the stars and dreamed and imagined “what is there?” It was a victory for progress. It was a victory for the notion that we can accomplish great things. It was in every way, as Neil Armstrong put it “one giant leap for mankind.” Forty four years later though, could we accomplish such incredible things?
Obviously this is a loaded question. Can we? Of course – after all, as ComputerWeekly.com noted last year, there is more computing power in a memory stick than in all of the Apollo computers combined, so ability, yes, have it. But could we, as a society, as a culture, accomplish such a massive project? One where the benefits to all mankind are so obvious? I’m not sure I can say a resounding “yes.”
First, we live in a bitterly divided partisan political culture in the US. While the 1960s political culture was devolving before our very eyes, the idea of liberal consensus enabled the possibility of all of the disparate of society and the political realm of the US to come together in pursuit of this common goal. Americans generally do NOT accept a common series of assumptions about our “system” or the inherent good behind it, nor do we accept that we are all working toward a common end and that we are all in it together. This is distinctly not the political climate today. It simply would not be possible to get behind a common goal, convince all Americans of the benefit, fund it, and carry it out. As one of my friends said today, one group would block it because they’d be convinced that this was an effort to colonize space and give the Martians voting rights.
Moreover we live in a society now that is terrified of intellectualism and growing in our knowledge. My state (Texas – preposterous, given our connection to the space industry) voted $262 billion in educational spending cuts that affected textbooks and supplemental materials in science curricula in grades 5-8, particularly in laboratory materials in biology, physics, and chemistry (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2010/09/texas_could_see_cuts_to_textbo.html). There has been a massive problem nationally in finding credentialed science teachers, leading to decreased performance of students. On top of that, we have a culture that in many corners decries intellectual curiosity, and denies science. There were 13,950 peer-reviewed articles that confirmed global warming, while 24 rejected the hypothesis that humans are contributing to an accelerated rate of global climate change. 80% of Americans believe in angels; while 38 percent of Texans rejected evolution in its entirety, 30 percent believed dinosaurs and man roamed the earth together (another ten percent) were unsure). My point is we do not respect science in the United States – couple that with partisanship, I just cannot fathom a scenario where in 2013, we could begin and carry out a program to put a man on the moon.
We’re a nation that in 2013 has gone through precisely what happened in China in the 1400s. With the death of Zhu Di in 1424, Hongxi ascended to power, and quickly suspended Zheng He’s voyages. The initial rationale was that they cost too much. Ultimately however, the “treasure ships” were decommissioned and sold off for firewood. The empire developed a social attitude that looking outward for adventure and knowledge was essentially a sin, and everything that was legitimately worthwhile was to be found in China, the “middle kingdom.” They became everything the US is today – closed minded, no longer intellectually curious, risk averse.
On a completely unrelated note, I would be remiss if I did not note the passing of one of journalism’s true giants, Helen Thomas. She was a pioneer, always prepared, and never afraid to tell our political leaders they were full of shit. Despite the insane attempt to paint her as a anti-semite in 2010 she held to her convictions and showed more courage than the people she covered could ever hope to muster. She will be sorely missed. R.I.P.