The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

moon2It had been a dark and bitter year.  The war languished in Vietnam, students rioted around the globe, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, a B-52 crashed carrying four hydrogen bombs, Chicago police battered demonstrators at the Democratic convention, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, and Martin Luther King was shot down in Memphis.  Discontent was epidemic, disillusion profound, as American families sat down to dinner on Christmas Eve, 1968. 

Yet my most indelible memory of that evening is the hush of kitchen clatter as our gathering was drawn to the TV—children, grandmothers, cousins, in-laws, and old-maid aunts—to gaze through a spacecraft window at the mountains and craters of the moon, a phosphorescent world creeping across the screen, curving away to the black of space.  “In the beginning,” intoned a metallic voice across a quarter-million miles, “God created the heaven and the Earth . . .”; and the poignant closing of those first men to circle to moon: “Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”

And once again the Earth seemed good.  Time magazine scrapped plans to feature “the Dissenter” as Man of the Year, substituting the three astronauts.  Like a latter-day star in the east, Apollo 8 had risen over a world longing for epiphany.  It seemed proper that the event occur at Christmas—the last living myth in a disenchanted world, archaic as Genesis yet compelling at the core.

Yet the mood was short-lived.  After the first lunar landing, the public lost interest.  Having beaten the Russians in the Super Bowl of space, we went back to business and Monday Night Football.  When later moon shots were allowed to interrupt sports coverage the networks were deluged with angry phone calls.  After six walks on the moon, the last three were scrapped, saving seven-tenths of one percent of Apollo’s total cost.  Yet the $24 billion Apollo program cost each American only a dollar a month for nine years, and this ignores exponential returns to the economy.  The $38 billion spent on space between 1961 and 1972 was barely one percent of the national budget, three percent of the amount allotted to social programs, and half the figure for detected welfare fraud.  Had even this moderate commitment to space persisted, we would have walked on Mars decades ago.

It has been nearly a half-century since the last man left the moon.  Remnants of the great rockets now lie in  the Smithsonian with the John Bull, the Tin Lizzie, and the Spirit of St. Louis.  On the abandoned launch pad at the cape, dry grass bends in the sea breeze.  In another decade it is likely that all twelve who walked on the moon will have passed into history.  And there are now two generations who cannot remember when spaceflight was still a dream, who view Armstrong’s leap as an archival event, another Lindbergh commotion.

Rationales for the abrupt ending of Apollo suggested that the scientific potential did not warrant the cost, that the program stole technical talent from other fields, that it had little military value, and that Apollo’s dinosaur boosters were a dead end in the evolution of spaceflight, which must now consolidate a stepping-stone presence in Earth orbit.  Historian Walter McDougall argues that the space effort was part of an ideological package that Americans purchased after Sputnik in the belief that the United States must adopt the technocratic model to get back on top.  By the early seventies, with the relaxation of cold war tensions and the growing concern over domestic issues, “the original model for civilian technocracy, the space program, became dispensable.”1  This may well have been true, but it does not seem to justify scrapping three paid-up moon shots.  It is far more likely that President Nixon watched Apollo’s TV ratings drop and decided that the risks—especially after the near disaster of Apollo 13—outweighed diminishing returns.  

A part of the problem was television itself.  Ghostly images of astronauts on the moon revealed little detail, while the image of Earth in the lunar sky was a blurred white fleck segmented by two or three picture lines.  And beyond the technical limits of the media lay the confines of mass consciousness, restricting spaceflight coverage to hardware, technical routine, cost-benefit ratios, or the lifestyles of the astronauts, trivia that soon became boring.  Like the iconic cars that dominate our ads and movies, journalism in a pragmatic, means-become-ends culture is expected to get us somewhere.  Television, moreover, becomes the great leveler of experience.  How far away was the moon?  The same distance as Vietnam—across the family room.

But it is not the mass media that are finally to blame for public apathy toward manned spaceflight.  If we lack the imagination to infuse the event with wonder, the fault lies in ourselves.  A vast number of us are simply uncurious about anything we cannot perceive directly (making Mars even less interesting than the moon).  Since the universe of modern science, with neither center nor edge, violates the archetypes we call common sense, many choose simply to ignore it.  The alleged 15 percent who believed that the moon shot was an elaborate government hoax staged for television exemplified in the extreme the widespread want of the most elementary concepts necessary to grasp the event.  When the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake knocked out the power in the middle of the night, Griffith Observatory received numerous calls asking whether the quake was responsible for the sky being “so weird.”  The city-­bound callers had never seen a star-filled sky.

Critics bemoaned Apollo’s lack of utility, calling it escapism, military adventurism, fodder for technocracy, or a triumph of the WASPs, views often rooted in paranoid distrust of power and authority.  For the same reasons that polls name the president of the United States the greatest living American year after year, the average citizen fears and reveres power above all else, perceiving the world as narrowly political and measuring most things by their instrumental utility. 

In the long run, the whole politics of society is more profoundly changed by a new sense of human potential than by any amount of obsessive self-maintenance.  Without a source of meaning larger than the ego or beyond mere survival, one is left at the center of a universe devoid of transcendence.  The significance of anything derives from its larger context, one dependent in turn on still greater perspectives, until we reach what sociologist Peter Berger calls the “sacred canopy,” the boundary where known and unknown meet.  Any living symbol of the boundary, left inchoate and mysterious, becomes an object of awe and wonder, veiling some great mystery of indeterminate size and origin.

Wonder, in its larger sense, denotes the mysterium tremendum, the aura of unfathomable majesty, utterly humbling and wholly Other, surrounding the sublime and terrifying unknowns that border our models of reality—the dark forest, the empty desert, the sacred mountain, the boundless sea, the black silence of cosmic infinity.  Thus we gaze into the night sky and feel not diminishment but dilation. We sense the vastness and passion of creation and glimpse an equally vast interior—the “enormous geography of the soul,” as journalist Edwin Dubb put it.2  We are aware of the stars only because we have evolved a corresponding inner space.

Like Columbus, we enter space seeking the East in the west, journeying, as Joseph Campbell said, “outward into ourselves.”3  If there is a common thread through all world mythology and religion, it is that the nature of man and the cosmos are one.  It matters not whether this is literally true in some holographic sense, or subjectively true in that consciousness must constellate experience within its own limited spectrum; for us, it is true nevertheless.  In the gleam in my wife’s dark eye burns the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, while somewhere out on its myriad worlds recur the sound of my father’s laugh and the scent of my mother’s hair.

 A Candle in the Dark

So we dream of sailing a cozy ketch out past a million suns, across the dark sea of the soul, in search of the mirror lake in the soft green meadow, the secret center, the glint in the eye of God.  Even if it is not in time or in space, there is still a sense, in the cathedral of the mind, that the journey toward the horizon will bring it closer.  “Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world,” cried Tennyson’s Ulysses, “to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars!”  From the dawn of recorded history, the westward course of the sun has been that of rebirth and moral regeneration.  “The ultimate effect of the discovery of the new world,” wrote historian Charles Sanford, was “to substitute for the spiritual pilgrimage of Dante and Bunyan the ‘way West’ as the way of salvation.”4  From John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill,” the Puritan moral example to the old world, down to our own nostalgia for the purity of the frontier, the way into the wilderness has been the way home.  As with evolution itself, the way backward is lost—to the primordial sea, to the personal world of the primitive, to rambling twilight talk on a small-­town porch, to our own elusive youth.  As the western horizon recedes across oceans and continents and out into the cosmos, the quest goes forward and outward, seeking the center at the edge.

Joseph Campbell has observed that in countless myths from all parts of the world the quest for fire occurred not because anyone knew what the practical uses of fire would be, but because it was fascinating.  Those same myths credit the capture of fire with setting man apart from the beasts, for it was the earliest sign of that willingness to pursue fascination at great risk that has been the signature of our species.  Man requires these fascinations, said the poet Robinson Jeffers, as “visions that fool him out of his limits.”

“From the moment the first flint was flaked,” to borrow Auden’s phrase, space was fated to be the final canvas for expressing in bold strokes the inexhaustible soul of humanity.  We are alive at the dawn of a new Renaissance, a moment much like the morning of the modern age, when most of the globe lay deep in mystery and tall masts pierced the skies of burgeoning ports, luring those of imagination to seek their own destiny, to challenge the very foundations of man and nature, heaven and Earth.  Like the sailing ships that incarnated the aura of the Renaissance, or the great steam locomotives that embodied the building of America, the spacecraft is an emblem of the human spirit, probing the cosmos like a “candle in the dark.”

The Outer Reaches of Inner Space

The phrase belongs to a man who passed into history just before Christmas, 1996.  More than anyone of his century, Carl Sagan reignited the sense of wonder in a world increasingly content to simply exist.  Wonder was the core motif in the complex fugue of Sagan’s life, from the six-year-old at the World Exposition, awestruck by the utopian sights to Cosmos, the most widely watched series in the history of PBS television, and the proud ship Voyager, with its pictures of man and its heartfelt hellos from the people of Earth.  Who but Carl Sagan would cast humanity’s bottle into the cosmic ocean?  It was his rare gift to walk that razor’s edge between romance and reality.  He was the dreamer and the doer, the theorist and the activist, combining lofty speculations with cold, hard logic, balancing soaring wonder with unrelenting skepticism. 

Carl Sagan’s memorial is that silent streak of light that arced out over the dark Atlantic one hot August night, bearing, at his behest, greetings from Earth in fifty-nine languages, music from many cultures, and pictures of life on a blue planet.  Launched in 1977, Voyager would explore what may be the homelands of our descendants, returning breathtaking images of the outer planets before passing out of the solar system.  Traveling a million miles a day, Voyager will leave the Oort cloud, the trillion or more comets that orbit the sun, in 20,000 years.  After hundreds of centuries, it will cross the line where the sun can no longer hold an object in orbit and will enter the open sea of interstellar space, the great dark between the stars—to sail forever, as Sagan said, “through the starry archipelagoes of the vast Milky Way Galaxy.”  It seems appropriate that the last voice on the Voyager recording is that of Sagan’s five-year-old son:  “Hello from the children of planet Earth!”  For we are a species still in childhood, only now becoming aware of the true immensity and complexity of the cosmos.  Carrying the hopes of humanity, the dreams of millennia, Voyager reaches out to life in a universe turbulent and mysterious beyond anything imagined by our forebears.  And if odds of entering another solar system are very small, perhaps eternity is time enough.

Voyager was inevitable from the first gleam in the eye of the hunter-gatherer, from the first fire, wheel, and furrow; it was latent in the stirrup and the longship, in the creak of every caravel, the ring of every railroad spike.  Voyager is the distillation of our essence, our offering in the cosmic cathedral, the voices of millennia echoed in the vault of night.

Generations will come and go, civilizations will rise and fall, and long after Earth is vaporized by the sun and humanity is either extinct or evolved into other beings, Voyager will drift silently onward, carrying the message through countless eons:  that there was, at our time and place in the cosmos, an awareness that knew something of its world and something of itself, an imperfect people of irrepressible spirit, of mathematics and music, of love and wonder, who dared to dream of reaching the stars.

Speak Your Mind