Morte D’Atlantis

There are all kinds of reasons why the American space program is important.  Some of them are some of the best reasons I know for anything.

None of them are sufficient to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced.

Still it is not really up for debate:  the American space program, as it lately was, was a truly remarkably good thing both for America and the rest of the world…a good thing for the future.  And though I personally happen to think that several very large and implacable forces will combine to push America back into its space mission, pretty much just as it was, even such a cock-eyed optimist as myself has to admit that it might not happen, now…simply because there is now the possibility that it won’t, if you see what I mean.  Private enterprise in the Western world is now as untrustworthy as it’s ever been;  public-private partnerships (much evidence suggests) usually turn out to be far more expensive than purely public projects…not to mention more unreliable…and perhaps even more threatening than all that is the spectre of resources being thrown open to more unfettered market forces, that were once reserved to the management of governments accountable to the electorate.  Because when the market speaks most clearly of all, it usually says things like I don’t really care if things turn out well and where’s my piece and foresight is for suckers, and of course this does not bode well at all:  back in the bad old days I was really quite worried we would not get any space shuttles, nor ever a space station, since it was clear to me even then that if government couldn’t do it then private industry didn’t have a hope in hell of even wanting to…I grew up being woken at four to watch rockets take off in Florida, smoke blending with the living room carpet, sky against sky against my window, but by the time I was old enough to think about thinking more than I felt about feeling I realized that things looked kind of bad all around me…the words “spiritual malaise” fit America and Canada from the late Sixties to the late Seventies pretty much just as well as they’d fit England in the twelfth century, and what was wanted was much the same kind of cure.  Some kind of story, some kind of narrative — any old kind, really! — that was capable of turning out well.

This story was actually a pretty good one.  But now, it’s over.  Up in space, there’s a lot of science for the twenty-first century to find:  a lot of changes to what we think we know.  Not coincidentally, there’s a lot of money, as well.  But it’s the hard kind to get out, if money’s all you think of, because what space really offers is simply answers…answers to questions, and answers to problems.  Two things that the United States is not going to be running out of anytime soon, of course, which is why I think they really will be pushed back out there;  but then again, the States is also pretty chock-full of people at the moment who do not want answers, to either of those things, and so the only question is which pressure will prove the strongest.  I guess I don’t need to remind my American friends that their loonies on the farthest right will not be scaling back their efforts to gitcha any time soon — they will try anything and everything they can, they’ll turn every procedure they come across into a crisis and they’ll keep doing it! — this is the real problem, you see! — and where they can’t achieve their larger material ends (which thankfully they can’t) they’ll be happy to settle for smaller symbolic ones.  But from small things mama, big things one day come, and America has enjoyed a privileged position in space, and in the world because of space, for a pretty long time…

And if that’s ending now, they might find they want to get it back after a while, but though I don’t need to remind you about the bloodthirsty partisanship of your right-wing nutjobs, maybe I do need to remind you about what happens when you start to break up things that have been around for a long time.  Getting them back is twice as hard, then.  Pioneering new ground is easier than re-pioneering old ground, and getting back talented people who’ve moved on is tricky.  Rome survived Hannibal because their primary agricultural crop was soldiers — they conquered half the known world because they loved to go to war.  But America, despite its unique-in-history military might, is not a conqueror by nature anymore than it’s a trader by nature:  their primary agricultural crop has never been soldiers, nor even salesmen, but technical people.  Scientists and engineers, and backyard enthusiasts who want to be them when they grow up.  That’s where their money has always come from.  It’s never going to come from anywhere else.

So what do you do with all those people, if you reduce their level of occupation?  At that point they’re wheat stored up in the barn;  they can’t last forever.

You have to start exporting them.

Well, or stop planting them in the first place.  When I graduated high school, unemployment was very high, and the only jobs that were freely available were ones in which the work didn’t matter — I remember puzzling this out:  surely what you were supposed to get paid for was the work you did?  The work that needed doing?  Because if it didn’t need doing, then what justified the money?  Already by the mid-Eighties it didn’t work that way, though:  money didn’t ride on the back of work any longer.  Instead work rode on the back of money, and so what I was doing was just a detail.  There’s actually a name for this sort of thing, as it turns out:  they call it a pyramid scheme.  If you get in early then you make money for yourself, and if you get in late you make money for someone else, but it pays the bills temporarily, usually very temporarily but it does pay them.  The money makes money, for a few minutes anyway.  Because where the goal is money and the tools are also money then money can certainly be made;  getting labour at next-to-no-cost always means you can do something profitably, even if the something is really nothing, because the labour itself can be treated like a commodity…for as long as that works, which as any decent economist can tell you is actually not that long.  But…

“Oh, well?”

Well, not quite.  Because pretty soon, you see, the problem of what to do with this junk bond of human labour falls back on the government anyway (not that it was ever really resting anywhere else), and you can either have social spending or not, and that will pretty much determine whether or not you continue to have a pool of labour to deal with in the first place…and then you are stuck either way with either too many doing too little, or too few not doing enough.  So if your main crop is scientists and technical specialists then you have to do even more, in either case, or watch them all disappear before your eyes…

…Or just give up on raising scientists and technical specialists anyway, and concentrate on something cheaper.  Well, there are plenty of ways to go, you don’t have to concentrate on making shoes for wealthier nations if you don’t want to, and there is money out there…so America could retool, certainly.  Theoretically.  But is it going to happen?

Can it be done, if no one actually does it?

I am the lowliest of observers, but it seems to me that it can’t be, won’t be, probably shouldn’t be, and so America will continue to produce technical wizards and shelter theoretical geniuses.  And eventually they are going to want more to do.

Space.  It’s where a whole lot of the action will be.  But it’ll be hard to get back into.  Think of NASA as equity in the home:  right now the end of the space shuttle program looks a lot like taking out a second mortgage.  This is what being in a recession means, you sell what it took you years to build up, for pennies on the dollar, and then later you have to buy it back for even more than it was worth at the time.  That’s pretty depressing, I guess!  But it’s also pretty common.  Some people just give up, slide out of middle-class and stop looking back.  Others keep on punching.  I think America will keep on punching.

But it hasn’t started punching yet, because it hasn’t fully understood the choice.  If it had understood it, it would’ve tried to avoid having to make it.  SSC, PPL, STS, JKT…these things end in brain drains, that much is sure, that much is beyond question.  But if America proves to be as good at raising scientists as Rome was at raising soldiers, they may survive their Hannibal as well.  And I guess I won’t say I’m worried, but I also won’t say I’m not…because I know lots of things are not much better in this ten years, then they were in the ten years when I sat glued to the old colour set in the middle of the night looking for the capsules to splash down and the triumphant fists to be raised, somewhere out the window and far off out over the ocean, way over yonder in the minor key

Well, why else would I be singing this song?

But it’s just ’til we can get a new one, you understand.

And you have to think that will probably happen.  I was wrong, after all, about the space shuttle — because it turns out we did need it enough, to get it, and that it wasn’t just me who was worried.  The story worked, and I like to think it’s working still.  Some stories work for a long time, demonstrate a very long reach into futurity…we can picture ourselves there, because of them.  I’m not even an American, but I know the American story and it described me too.  America, like Canada — like every wealthy nation! — is not a perfect place, and it’ll always need to be able to take a good long look at itself in the mirror:  a good hard look.  But how can any country do that, if there’s not going to be anything good looking back out at it, to balance the bad stuff?  Throughout my lifetime, America may have done a lot of things that sucked pretty hard, but America always had ideals — was distinguished by the kind of ideals it had even if it wasn’t particularly good at living up to them.  An innovative, liberal, technological advance scout for new centuries:  that’s what it’s always been.  It can’t look in the mirror without seeing that.  It must at least always be able to see that, or it isn’t going to be able to get up its nerve to look in the mirror.  Back at the turn of the century, in The Invisibles, Grant Morrison compared the American obsession with, uh…let’s call it zombie-based popular entertainment, to Victorian England’s obsession with seances and table-rapping and presumably theosophy:  each an indicator of its culture’s subconscious awareness that whatever it could get to pass for Empire before, won’t pass as it for much longer.  And as always, Grant hits the nerve dead-centre…the cosmic specialness of nations we arrogate to ourselves to explain our successes always surfaces in our death-dreams, whether it’s composed of divine right, or superior civilization, or go-get-’em never-say-die attitude.  It always bends back on us, as if to say “the vehicle has become an obstacle, and the ceremony a fetish”, and its usefulness is over and it’s time to let it go.  Twelfth-century Britain dreamt of holy relics in unlikely places, special encounters in dreamlike spaces that contained within them forgotten inheritances…and tests, of course.  Tests of spiritual worthiness, in the oneirogeographical maze of the greenwood.  And twentieth-century America had something like this too.

Star Trek, right?

So we begin with Enterprise and end up in Atlantis, and maybe that doesn’t look so good for the story, but the story isn’t over.  The story is still going on.  We are always at the end of Act Two, in these things, because that’s where the pressure of futurity comes on…how’s he going to get out of this one?  What’s going to happen next?  Every culture is always stuck in its story’s cliffhanger, once it starts to need that kind of story.  Every culture has as many authors as it does readers.  And at the end of all the testing is that last trick question.

What is it that you see, when you look in the mirror?

The question is whether or not money, America’s greatest power, will kill the love of science which is its deepest soul.  Of course some people think there is nothing to America at all except for its power, and if I were one of those people I would not expect America to be able to keep punching…to be able to change its tune

But as it happens I do not think that all America is, is its power.

And I still think the face it sees in the mirror is an astronaut’s face.  Captain Kirk’s face?  Hey, maybe so…he was a very flawed hero, you know.

Which is exactly the kind you want, really.  Perfect heroes are so boring, all they do is translate to Heaven in the end…where they probably always belonged anyway.  And in Heaven, as we know…nothing ever happens.

Space, on the other hand, is where Heaven keeps its exit strategies.

And where the American culture has traditionally kept its Third Acts, I think.

Well, it’s gotta be keeping them somewhere…!



7 responses to “Morte D’Atlantis

  1. There’s the concept of America as a spacefaring nation on the one hand, and there’s the practical matter of NASA and America’s space program on the other hand. You and I agree the first is really very important, and losing that is a blow to the whole world and has made America go a tiny bit more crazy and self-loathing. But the second has been a mess right from the start, and since about 1970 has been a humiliating embarrassment for anyone who knew about it. Basically, NASA management sabotaged itself at every opportunity and did their level best to alienate the public whenever they could.

    This article only covers the Shuttle; the rest of NASA’s history has been as bad or worse. The best hope for the future of my country as a spacefaring entity is that we get rid of NASA altogether. A lot of good people worked there, or work there still…and I hope every one of them marches into the office of SpaceX so they can do their jobs in a more helpful setting.

    (I don’t want to give the wrong idea — I consider myself a Socialist and anti-Libertarian, and I don’t often root for private enterprise over a federal program owned by the government. But there are times when it’s the better choice.)

  2. Well said. Although I don’t think NASA (or something like it) can actually be gotten rid of — only purged from the low-orbit rocketeering business. There’s a treaty out there that ensures governments are the only entities that get to go any higher than that, after all…

    …And I think it’s good policy. But!

    Yeah, people also forget that the space shuttle was a stopgap measure in the first place, a compromise of sorts…it wasn’t supposed to fly for thirty years anyway. Looking back on the failure rates you can see it turned out pretty well just as it began, and the rot Feynman talked about had set in long before he unearthed it. Well, and not just in NASA, obviously, nor has private enterprise remained any sort of bastion of reality-based thinking…but again yeah, I was perhaps a bit hasty in saying private industry can’t do it. Private industry (with government contracts, natch) already has done quite a lot…Canada’s own late lamented Avro, for example. Before the rot set in, it’s a bit of a different story, I think: DS1’s vaunted ion drive was built on specs that got filed away in a sub-basement at NASA almost thirty years before, if I’m recalling that right? But the brain drain was already happening, I definitely got that part wrong and should probably fix it. In any case, as much as I disagree with the notion that the space shuttle didn’t do any science/robots are better for doing science anyway — and I disagree with it pretty strongly — I don’t find a whole lot else to disagree with in that Discover article. NASA’s been a mess since forever — look at the crazy-ass wish list they delivered to Bush Sr. when he wanted to put a man on Mars, to me that speaks of a fatalistic mentality — the starvation of the quangoes always ends in the circling of the mental wagons, everything turns to triage and PR and bad decision procedures. Maybe I let my mistrust of the corporate world get away from me a bit, too: in 2011 it is definitely hard to trust private enterprise, and it gets harder every day…but that doesn’t mean NASA would be out of place as a case study in The Peter Principle. And in theory, rockets and space planes are the simplest part of the job, the easiest to farm out…

    But for all the things that NASA (or something like it!) is needed for, probably the most urgent need is for something it wasn’t doing that great at anyway, but which I’m damned if I can see any other organization in the States managing to provide at all: vision, of course. You sense NASA was riding the space shuttle like it was a bubble: and powerful motivations at work to deflect self-criticism. We were supposed to have better stuff by now, damn it! I mean I am not asking for flying cars…

  3. Yeah, I should have clarified what I meant was that NASA should go and something else should take its place as the American space agency, while making the hardware that takes us up there becomes a commercial operation which considers that agency and its counterparts in other nations as customers. Like Boeing building 747-400s for civil aviation, knowing there are many potential buyers but any of them could choose Airbus instead.

    It’s like, we don’t look to Boeing or Airbus to provide the romance of air travel or inspire the public. Once upon a time, entities such as TWA or Pan-Am did make commercial air travel seem glamorous and luxurious — and what’s become of airlines since then is another good reason to distrust the private sector, but that’s another rant…

    I disagree with the same part of that article you disagree with.

  4. Of course you do! I wish people would stop saying that stuff like it’s true. Of course it would help if NASA had ever told anyone about any of the cool stuff they were doing. Hmm, I knock NASA for that, but I have to admit they do make some pretty good free teaching materials…

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