Jul 20 2009 1:20am

On July 20th, David Brin

As the father of three teenagers, I share with millions of other boomers a head scratching perplexity. Why don’t today’s youth care about outer space?

The easy answer would be to seize upon a simple nostrum—about each era rejecting the obsessions of the one before it. But then, in that case, why is the very opposite true about popular music? Back in the hippie era, music divided the generations. But today? Well, my kids adore classic 60s and 70s Rock. In a surf shop or bike store, all I have to do is mention a few of the concerts that I snuck into, long ago, and the brash young fellers are at my feet, saying “tell us more, gramps!”

So why do they yawn, when we turn to the NASA Channel or tape the latest shuttle launch to show them after dinner, or talk about colonizing Mars? Or when we brag about being members of a species who walked on the Moon? For certain, you don’t hear astronaut mentioned on any list of dream jobs.

Puzzling over this quandary, I was reminded of something Norman Mailer said, when he wrote his 1960s tome A Fire on the Moon. Mailer had begun researching the book amid feelings of smug, intellectual hostility toward the crewcut engineers and fliers he encountered... only then his attitude shifted when he realized, in a startled epiphany that: “They were achieving not one, but two bona fide miracles.”

Feats that—when Mailer really thought about it—struck him as truly Biblical in proportion.

1. They were actually going to the Moon!

2. They were actually succeeding in making such an adventure boring.

Mailer’s insight came to mind, while I was talking to my kids about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Of all the predictions* ever made about spaceflight, I figure the least imaginable outcome would have been ennui.

Of course, policy has had a lot to do with it. Members of the astronaut corps were always willing to accept a level of calculated risk similar to—if more carefully managed than—the adventurous pioneers of aviation. Perhaps the public might also have accepted the kind of casualty rates that usually occur on a frontier—they did in Lindbergh’s time. But politicians could not. They wanted promises of “routine access to space.” And so, the shuttle proved an expensive and awkward mix of overblown promises, lost opportunities, relentless nit-pickery and mind numbing sameness. Not at all what we expected, back when my peers sat in the front row of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Nor is that entirely a bad thing. As I point out elsewhere (, we may have failed to build magnificent, rolling space hotels and moonbases that frolic to Strauss waltzes. But our civilization is a better one, than was depicted in that film. And if I had to choose...

Now consider a few other perspectives. For example: ever since the invention of the steam locomotive, human beings (or their machines) managed, every passing year and decade, to keep traveling faster at an accelerating rate—a curve that kept spiking ever more vertical, until we launched the Voyager space probes on their pellmell fling past Jupiter and beyond the Solar System, in the mid 1970s. Extrapolating that curve of ever-greater speed, some expected that we would, by 2010, dispatch probes to distant stars! We would easily have landed humans on Mars, using Freeman Dyson’s marvelous Orion-drive ships. It all appeared as inevitable and obvious as Moore’s Law of computer development seems to a different generation of techie-transcendentalists.

Only then, quite suddenly, the curve of acceleration abruptly stopped—after 150 years. The Voyagers represented, in many ways, a high water mark of humanity’s progress in space, ending the raucous search for speed. Indeed, millions now look at the Space Race obsession as a mark of earlier immaturity. Sure, we benefit from weather and communication satellites, and reconnaissance-sats spread the worldwide transparency that arguably save all our lives, during the Cold War. People are moderately proud of robotic space probes like Hubble and Cassini and Spirit and Opportunity. But when it comes to dreams of men and women, venturing into vacuum waste, well, you can hardly even find that happening in movie sci fi anymore, let alone our ambitions.

Certainly, when it comes to the actual Moon itself, I look with skepticism upon any thought of hurrying back there. My own graduate research advisor was the fellow who predicted there might be ice in lightless crater-bottoms, at the north or south lunar poles—and if it turns out to be true, there might be something useful about the place, someday. But it hardly seems a useful destination, compared to the riches that await us at near-Earth crossing asteroids. Or that prime real estate—Phobos. Or the possible abode of life that is Europa.

And yet, in honor of this anniversary, I want to make two points, in defense of those quaint old missions to the Moon.

First, they serve as a backstop against the gloom and pessimism that seem to be preached at every turn. “If we could go to the moon...” begins so many of the arguments put forward for some ambitious enterprise or another.

Second, I believe the Apollo missions helped to create some of the most important art in human history.

A bold and strange statement. But let me dare to define effective visual art as some work or representation that subtly changes human beings just by the sight of it, transforming hearts and minds without verbal or logical persuasion.

By that reckoning, the 20th century featured two hugely effective works of visual art, both of them gifts of physics! First, the terrifying image of the atom bomb altered forever our little-boy romantic attachment to war, beckoning us instead us to grow up a bit in dealing with this new and awesome power to destroy. Defense became the business of serious grownups. Even (especially) among soldiers, war itself is now seen as evidence of failure - an urgent and risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence.

The second image that changed us was a gift that arrived at the very end of one of the most difficult years any of us can remember—1968—a year that brought most Americans to the brink of exhaustion and despair.

Only then, a final token arrived—like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box...when the Apollo 8 astronauts brought home that first perfect image of the Earth, floating as a blue marble in space. An picture that moved even the most cynical hearts and changed forever our outlook towards this fragile oasis world.

It was that image—a work of art that was purely created by humanity’s scientific boldness and ambition—that transformed us more than anything else. Perhaps sending us down roads that will make us more ready... and more worthy ... when that day comes for our childrens’ children to once again start chanting: “Let’s go!”


*Speaking of predictions. In a 1959 comic strip Jeff Hawke, the writers forecast that the first human landing on the Moon would happen on 4 August 1969, with a real-life error of only two weeks.

David Brin is a science fiction author and scientist, most notable for The Postman and his Uplift universe novels. His work has received numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell.

This article is part of Moon Landing Day: ‹ previous | index | next ›
j p
1. sps49
Was 1968 that bad, in retrospect? I know there was a lot going on, and I don't want to minimize it, but- really?

And that Apollo 8 picture is still classic, superseded only by the Apollo 17 "Blue MArble" one. I don't ever see more recent pictures of Earth from space used.
Rikka Cordin
2. Rikka
I don't know, I could easily be a simple exception but I have to disagree that us teenagers aren't digging the space thing. I'm a 19 yo English major and I read up on terra-forming Mars, the Deep Impact mission and the search for extra-terrestrial planets.

At my high-school EarthandSpace is one of the most popular non-required science course (except for phyiscs, but the guidance counselors tell kids that if they don't take physics they won't get into college so..... :P). At my university Astronomy is the most popular non-required lab science.

Space is fascinating stuff and from my experience, teenagers are just as interested in the big questions about the universe as all them old hippies from the 60's. I wrote my (high school) senior year thesis on government funding of space exploration.

Don't count us out ;)
David Goldfarb
3. David_Goldfarb
Dispatch probes to the stars by 2010? Heck, in 1961, G. Harry Stine (in an article entitled "Science Fiction is Too Conservative") confidently predicted FTL travel by the 1980s. During the period of exponential growth, of course, an S-curve has exactly the same shape as a parabola...but it is still an S-curve and not a parabola. (The same sort of thinking led Mark Twain to predict that by 1940 the dominant religion in the USA would be Christian Science. At the time he wrote, the growth curve had probably already reached its inflection point.)
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
4. pnh
sps49, #1: "Was 1968 that bad, in retrospect?"

1968 was that bad.
5. Mezz
Up until some dreadful personal health & family disasters in the last 10 years, I counted 1968 as probably the worst year I'd lived through.
My earliest non-personal memory is the Berlin Wall being built; it felt not that long after, the shock of President Kennedy's killing, Cold War, and the strife and troubles (as well as hopes) of the 1960s.
But it seemed to climax in 1968: King assassinated, riots & cities in flames in America; more riots across Europe; Bobby Kennedy shot dead - these are what still stand out in memory - even here in Oz, to a thoughtful child (already an eco-worrier) only just out of Primary School, it was bad.
MC Pye
6. Mez
Hmm. Trying again to see if it recognises me this time.

It does. Looks like if I don't do anything for a while one's logon times out. Oh well.
Marissa Lingen
7. Mris
Rikka, not everybody in this field counts you out. Some of us remember being the Teenagers These Days who were getting the same lecture about how we were Just Not Interested Enough 10-15 years ago. It wasn't true then, either.

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