What Happened to Destiny?
John Glenn's flight shows how modest our ambitions in space have become
By Charles Krauthammer
(TIME, Nov. 9) -- I hate to be the skunk at the picnic--or rather, the great U.S. celebration that attended the return of John Glenn to space. But amid all the high-fiving about how wonderful and glorious it was, we seem to have glossed over the fact that on that beautiful Thursday morning we sent the same man on the same trip he made 36 years ago. It is as if we had a great national jamboree at Kitty Hawk in 1939 to watch the Wright brothers skim the sand in a new biplane.
Don't get me wrong. This is no knock on John Glenn. John Glenn is a hero. He deserves to go anywhere he wants to go. He would have earned his wings if he'd done nothing more than fly those 149 combat missions in World War II and Korea, let alone risk his life as the first American to orbit the earth.
This is no knock on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration either. Sure, it shamelessly hyped the Glenn flight. But NASA, a living rebuke to those conservatives who believe that government can do nothing right, is entitled to use whatever stunt it can to gin up America's constantly flagging interest in the greatest human achievement of this half-century, space flight.
And what a job it did with Glenn. When was the last time the U.S. stopped, riveted to the TV, anxiously awaiting a launch? When was the last time television sets were wheeled into classrooms? When was the last time kids cheered our national space truck making yet another haul? Most people were surprised to learn that the Glenn flight is the shuttle's 92nd. Except, sadly, for Challenger, who can remember any of the other 91?
No, the knock is on us, the nation that John Kennedy once galvanized with the challenge "of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth," impossibly, within 8 1/2 years. Once, we had the spirit to go. And we did. Then we came back. And ever since, we've sat.
Maybe the critics are right. Maybe what animated us back then was less the spirit of exploration than the spur of nationalism. Maybe it was all about beating the Russians. How else to explain how we've been content to go around in circles--literally, around and around in low-earth orbit--for the past quarter-century?
Let's be honest about the Glenn trip. The attempt to sell it as science, though entirely understandable, is entirely laughable. This enormous expense--and considerable risk--to pick up a datum or two about geriatrics? How our horizons have shrunk. Space flight was once about destiny, not telemetry. Three decades ago, Kennedy spoke for the nation when he ringingly declared, "We choose to go to the moon." What have we to say now? "We choose to study Metamucil digestion in microgravity?"
It is not as if we have nowhere to go but endlessly around the earth. True, until a few years ago, it could have been argued that a moon base was impractical and Mars exploration even more so. But we have recently discovered ice on the moon, which makes the provision of water and (from water) fuel a real possibility. Similarly, new ideas have been advanced for using Mars' water and pre-positioned fuel stores to reduce radically the loads human travelers would have to haul there.
In the early 1970s, we had a window to the moon. We let it close. Amid the retreat and demoralization of the Vietnam era, we came home, America. The window can be reopened, but it requires an act of will. Instead, we are now set to spend the next decade or two building a cozy little house, called a space station, in near-earth orbit.
I know it sounds quaint, but what happened to destiny? What happened to the lust for the frontier? Perhaps in any age of exploration a stage of natural exhaustion sets in after the first burst of discovery. After all, Columbus sailed in 1492. Yet it was not until 73 years later that the first permanent European settlement was established in North America. What a pity if we had to wait 73 years before establishing a living human presence on the moon.
I love John Glenn. And his flight may yet advance exploration--not because of the science he brings back but because of the enthusiasm he generates. It is no fault of his that the enthusiasm is of a peculiar kind. Space flight is designed to evoke the edgy, restless feeling of a beckoning future; this flight evokes feelings of warmth and nostalgia, "that moment when we could feel young again," as Tom Shales of the Washington Post put it. What does it tell us that the only flight we have celebrated for the past two decades is one that looks not forward but back?
Glenn's flight is testimony not to the hold that space has on us but to the esteem in which we hold Glenn. It is a salute not to daring but to celebrity. Had some obscure 77-year-old astronaut trainee gone up instead, there would have been nothing approaching the current hoopla. The story of this flight is that a man with a name--a hero--went into space. The point of space exploration, however, is for a man with no name to do something so magnificent, so improbable, so epochal, as to enter the pantheon of heros. As happened 36 years ago to a man called John Glenn.
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Cover Date: November 9, 1998
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What happened to destiny?; Our modest ambitions in space