Pushing into space not free, but worth it

Story highlights

Gene Seymour: Philae landing amazing, but people still grouse about whether expense worth it

Americans loved-hated space travel since challenge of Sputnik. They want in, but leery of cost

He says pioneering is in U.S. DNA; earthbound endeavors shouldn't preclude space ones

Seymour: "Interstellar" notes change from explorers to "caretakers"

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

CNN —  

Practically from the day the Space Age started on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first human-made satellite into Earth orbit, it’s been like this. Every time there’s a conspicuous breakthrough in space, somebody, somewhere will find a way to kill the buzz.

After Philae’s touchdown on the comet Wednesday, this hashtag #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant (as in #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant find a missing plane on our own planet) started trending in the Twitterverse. Ah, yes. And Americans are especially good at this grousing.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

People have been shouting “Oh, wow!” and then “Oh no!” since the 1950s. Americans on the one hand were alarmed that their Cold War nemesis had rockets big enough to hurl heavy metal projectiles at us and on the other were camping outside at night to see the little beeping ball fly over their backyards.

Americans’ consensus love-hate for space exploration has assumed many forms over the years. Once the nation got over its collective shock-and-awe of Sputnik, its citizenry demanded that its scientists and politicians figure out a way to get our own projectiles up there ASAP. We did it, with some notable disasters on the way, at which time the moaning over whether we should spend so much taxpayer money on such risky endeavors would begin.

We were taken back to those dismal days in recent weeks when a rocket launched by the privately owned (but government contracted) Orbital Sciences Corp. with cargo for the International Space Station exploded in midair shortly after lifting off from Wallops Island, Virginia. Three days later, SpaceShipTwo, built by Virgin Galactic (private, not taxpayer, dollars in this case) as a working prototype for a passenger spacecraft, broke up during a flight test over California’s Mojave Desert and crashed, killing its co-pilot and seriously injuring its pilot.

Both these catastrophes were too reminiscent of the serial test failures of the 1950s in which rockets regularly blew up before reaching the stratosphere and test pilots seeking faster, higher records in the same Mojave skies lost their planes and their lives. It was through such trial and error that, eventually, America got proficient enough to send satellites and people into space and succeed much more often than it didn’t.

And we fell in love.

The romance of space flight became part of our national identity, especially after we started sending humans of our own. As we exceeded our planetary boundaries by sending probes, and then men to the moon, other boundaries seemed less daunting and forbidding.

And yet, with many cheering and goading the country to fly higher, farther and faster, there were just as many Americans wondering if too many of our resources were being squandered for what was mostly a speculative endeavor.

My own cheerleading for space travel was often countered with some spoilsport, honest and sincere, complaining that all that money being shot into the skies could be put to better use on Earth: e.g. Why do we need to go to Mars when we have all these problems on Earth to solve?

For a long time, I had no strong counterargument. But now, with the space shuttle program literally mounted in museums and no government plans to return to the moon or head for Mars any time soon, I find myself asking how that solving-problems-on-Earth thing is going now.

I’m still waiting for a sensible answer, but I don’t think one exists. The urge to explore and push ourselves out into the universe is not mutually exclusive from the effort to improve our own minds and environment.

Consider: Last year, 7 million people visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, beating out New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by roughly a million. Many of them look at vintage spacecraft and archival mockups and openly wonder where our yearning for adventure has gone since the turn of this century.

Even the movies bring this up. “We used to be explorers and pioneers,” says a character in the just-released science fiction spectacular, “Interstellar.” “Now we’re a generation of caretakers.” Christopher Nolan’s film conceives a potential future in which what’s left of NASA has gone underground to figure out options for humankind literally choking to death on ecological decay on Earth. In this future, it seems as though the moon-landing-denial constituency has gained such a foothold in the public schools that a student can get in trouble for suggesting we did in fact land on the moon.

Can’t we all just be happy that human beings can do what the European Space Agency did this week? Probably not. I’m just waiting for some troll to claim that it isn’t a real breakthrough unless Americans do it first.

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