To break from this malaise, we must return to the heavens

A Times Editorial
Published October 4, 2007

Is this all there is and will be? Is there nothing more - only less, worse or the same?

These questions, characteristic of a middle-age crisis, are being asked not only by those who actually remember that this is the 50th anniversary of the space age but also by those on a much wider scale: people dreaming of an America returned to stability and prosperity, reclaiming its respected place among nations.

Today, we have the uneasy feeling that things are getting worse, and politicians are not offering much hope for the foreseeable future. We are presented with the alchemy of this economic statistic or that new social policy, but we know decline when we see it. The real culprit of the decline: loss of meaning, malaise and emptiness. This is in some way connected to the loss of understanding about our country, its roots, our potential and our possible destiny.

We may live in a place called America, but we are no longer living as Americans. Rather, we are now as an atomized polyglot, searching for meaning in virtual realities, narcotics and the stultifying stupor of pop music. We seem to do anything to escape from actual reality, if only to avoid looking the beast in the eye. That is why when we think about America today, a kind of sadness washes over us - at best, an uncertainty, and in the young, a blankness.

Our republic has a beautiful history though, one that does not necessarily match the Harvard version. A history of many nations becoming one, of escape from oppression, of hard work and the freedom of life, of bounty in food and thought, of acculturation and variety, of expansion and brutal conquest; of separateness, but also togetherness; of life in common, of civilization. But a return to the past is impossible. It is not the answer. Neither is grasping to current intellectual and political fads, a time that is being eroded very quickly. Any redefining (or recapturing) of our national identity must be oriented to the future.

Fifty years ago today, on Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik, the little wanderer, pierced the night sky over the then-Soviet Union, and the cosmic era began. Unlike the arms race, the resulting space race was not only an economic and military competition, but it also fulfilled a certain humanistic need to go boldly.

In past centuries, people had a lot of room on Earth to explore. At the close of the 15th century, Columbus sparked the modern age of exploration, which has only finished very recently, as the world has been mapped. For a few years we branched out into the sky, sending 12 men to walk on the Moon, and we probed much of our solar neighborhood with spacecraft.

The abandonment of boldly going anywhere, and our national malaise, coincide. There is nothing left that inspires. No ideas that capture the imaginations of young and old alike. Since today we are ineffectively vacillating between repugnant visions of world order, it is time to discard them all. It is time to bring back that greatest of ideas, the one that gives the last man something to live for again. Americans can rekindle their identity as a nation, and their connection with the infinite, through the conquest of space.

While this return to the future is of course a quest to broaden the horizons of knowledge, it is also a great drama, a national drama, one that reminds us of our togetherness, and our aloneness. It also brings cooperation with not only the Europeans and their hopes and dreams, but also the Russians, the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and others. Further, it brings us face to face with the natural world in its absolute form, in all of its scintillating power. This is something extremely prudent, considering the possibility of cosmic catastrophe is 100 percent, and that life is in, more than anything else, a race against time.

Outer space is a challenging place, but the whole solar system is our patrimony. It is real, and it is there for us. Understanding the extraordinary value, social and existential, of expanding into it, and that no greater human purpose is even possible, is the most potent counterforce against our loss of meaning in life. The transcendent quality of return to the future makes it the most essential of educational means and ends.

So, we've come to a fork in the road. One path continues the eternal now, our social malaise, the ignoring of cosmic reality, and, like a hallucinogen, compels us to be docile and wait for disaster within a closed ecological system. The other way means altering our trajectory away from decline and fall by remembering the American tradition, remembering love of exploration and extending humanity and sapience to the worlds around us, to all the coasts of the interplanetary ocean. There is no third way.

If it seems too expensive, be comforted. It is much cheaper to go to Mars than to Iraq. And if it just seems so bracing, think hard for a time on the alternatives. The 50th anniversary, of what used to be the space age, is a good time to start.

David Tamm has a master's degree in international studies and teaches reading at Hudson High School.