Thursday, March 1, 2012

50th Anniversary of John Glenn's Flight and the Decline of NASA

With little fanfare, the county commemorated the 50th anniversary of John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 21.  The inattention to Glenn’s accomplishment as well as the constant mocking of Newt Gingrich’s moon base plan, culminating in SNL’s February 4th opening skit, “Newt Gingrich: Moon President,” reveals a significant change in American ambitions.  The space program, once an important source of national pride and influence on television and film, has faded in relevance and NASA is rapidly headed toward obscurity.

The Cold War provided the impetus for the space race.  Glenn’s triumphant voyage came after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space in 1957 with Sputnik as well as the first man into space when Yuri Gagarin made an orbital flight in 1961.   The race continued as the United States beat the Russians to the moon when Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong landed at Tranquility Base on July 20,1969.

During NASA’s heyday in the 1960s, astronauts became national icons who received tickertape parades down New York City’s Canyon of Heroes, as Glenn did in 1962.  The space race gave credence in science fiction as “Star Trek” premiered on television in 1966, with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” opening in theatres in 1968.  Even a silly sitcom like “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-70) took place at Cape Canaveral where Larry Hagman’s bumbling character, Major Anthony Nelson, worked as an astronaut. 

After the moon landing, many NASA scientists like Werner Von Braun espoused visions similar to Newt’s, imagining moon bases by 1980 with trips to Mars to follow.  Indeed, Disney World’s “Flight to the Moon” became obsolete in “Tomorrowland” and was replaced by “Mission to Mars” in 1975.  With the moon race won, however, budgetary pressures led to the scrapping of the final three moon missions in favor of Skylab, a short-lived American space station.  Further travel to the stars was then shelved in favor of the more cost-effective space shuttle, which could be reused. 

While Americans gradually lost interest in space, the still-fresh memory of the program remained important into the 1970s and early 80s.  Science fiction reached new heights with the incredible success of the “Star Wars” trilogy from 1977-83 and the consequent revival of “Star Trek.”  “The Right Stuff,” (1983), with its heroic portrayal of the original Mercury astronauts, fueled talk of a presidential run for John Glenn, then a U.S. Senator from Ohio.  Despite the Hollywood treatment, Glenn’s 1984 campaign barely got off the ground and former Vice-President Walter Mondale and a then-unknown Gary Hart trounced him in the Democratic primaries.

Starting with the maiden voyage of Columbia in 1981, the space shuttle program produced important scientific gains like the Hubble Telescope, but missions to low Earth orbit could not inspire the national imagination in the same way a voyage to the moon did. Over time, Americans began to only pay serious attention to NASA when there were tragedies, like the 1986 Challenger explosion.  That disaster brought about national mourning, in part because it was the first time astronauts had been lost in flight, but also because the space program was still a key part of American identity.  Witness the far less emotional reaction a generation later to the 2003 Columbia disaster.  Only the gimmick of sending the 77 year-old Glenn back into space on Discovery in 1998 drew significant media attention for a success.

The decline of blockbuster science fiction reflected this to some degree.  The biggest movie franchises of the last decade did not occur in space but were earth-bound fantasies such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” While I enjoyed these films immensely, they were largely backward looking, particularly LOTR, which seemed to glorify a rural, feudal past.

Though both President Bushes proposed returning to the moon, President Obama is largely privatizing the program with the intent of eventually launching a trip to land astronauts on an asteroid.  Furthermore, public support for space travel remains low in light of contemporary budget deficits.  The nation also seems to have lost the passion for space to the point that Newt is mocked for the same ideas that respectable scientists suggested a generation ago. This dynamic seems unlikely to change anytime soon. As some have speculated, it may take a challenge from another foreign power like China to inspire a revitalized space program.   

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