TCS Daily

At 40th Anniversary Of Man In Space, Mankind Steps Back Rather Than Leaps Ahead

By James Pinkerton - April 12, 2001 12:00 AM

The 40th anniversary of man in space -- on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, aboard Vostok I, made a single orbit around the earth -- reminds us of the many paradoxes of the space age.

The dream of space flight, from Jules Verne to H.G. Wells to Arthur C. Clarke, was usually incorporated into a utopian vision of Better Things to Come. Yet it wasn't utopian impulses that drove the space program upward. The first serious rocketeer, of course, was Wernher von Braun, and he did his rocketry for the Nazis. After that didn't work out, he came to the United States, where he found a winning team. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War competition was the driver; in 1957, after the Russians put the unmanned Sputnik into orbit, the United States scrambled to catch up. Less than a dozen years later, the Americans were on the moon; the Russians, figuratively, ate lunar dust.

Yet at the same time, the U.S.-Soviet space race brought a feeling of planetary unity. When the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, astronauts James Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders read passages from the Book of Genesis to a worldwide telecast. To be sure, 1968 was an annus horribilis for the United States; it was the peak year of fighting in Vietnam and rioting at home, and it was the year that Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. Yet it was also the year that humanity could first see "spaceship earth" as it appeared from 250,000 miles away, a little blue ball hanging in the inky blackness. It was a reminder that human beings, friend and foe alike, had a lot in common, like it or not.

And in 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon, further heightening the paradoxes of the space age. At a time when thousands of men were dying in Vietnam every week, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Sea of Tranquility. On the exterior of their lunar excursion module, a plaque read: "Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon The Moon. July 1969 A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind." Armstrong and Aldrin left a 1.5-inch silicon diskette containing goodwill speeches from the heads of 23 nations; also remaining behind were patches and medals commemorating three dead U.S astronauts and two dead Soviet cosmonauts.

Few Americans under 35 know this lore, because the opinion-forming institutions - the media and the schools - have been much more interested in commemorating other events, concerning, say, race relations and sexual relations. And so a heroic period in human history has been neglected.

Interestingly, the movies, the defining art form of the 20th century, have long celebrated space adventure, but only in its most abstract science fiction form. But the Hollywood that gave us Star Wars and a googol of other space odysseys, mostly fails to document real history, as opposed to cine-fantasy.

Which makes a new Australian movie, "The Dish," starring Sam Neill, so welcome. It's the more-or-less true story of the Parkes Observatory, a giant radio telescope located 225 miles west of Sydney, serving as the downlink for the live televised images of Armstrong's taking his "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The Parkes technicians overcame bad luck and bad weather to preserve the transmission; those who don't think that's sufficiently dramatic to justify two hours' worth of film are precisely those who need to see the movie.

As film critic Kevin Thomas wrote in the Los Angeles Times last month, "'The Dish' does a wonderful job of evoking the awesome effect of the Apollo 11 mission. ... It reminds us of how transcendent an event it was, lifting us up for a moment above the petty and mundane affairs of everyday life." Of course, it can uplift only those who see it. The film was a huge hit Down Under, but it has caused barely a ripple in the United States; in the entire Washington, D.C., metro area, it opened in a grand total of two theaters.

But movies aside, the Verne/Wells/Clarke dream of space as the place of human destiny is mostly neglected. To be sure, the International Space Station is slowly being assembled in orbit, although few people seem to notice. And yes, the satellite business, a $100-billion-a-year enterprise, has done more to knit people together than any invention except perhaps the Internet. And yes, the Bush administration's push to put defensive weapons up in space holds the promise of keeping peace here on earth.

But what can't be argued is that the lyricism of space travel in the 1960s - from Yuri Gagarin aboard the orbiter he dubbed "Swallow" to Armstrong and Aldrin aboard the lunar lander they dubbed "Eagle" -- has been lost, or at least misplaced.

Forty years after the manned space era began, the United States and the world are richer than ever, and yet the idea of sending men and women out into the beyond on voyages of discovery and destiny seems, well, alien.

It's hard to imagine that this lull in outward-boundedness is a permanent condition. It's easier - or at least more comforting - to believe that exploratory heroism is only sleeping, and that someday soon, the reveille will sound.


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