Mythic Vision: Its lack killed NASA, its recovery may save us all
I’ve been observing with great interest the flurry of recent articles, essays, and editorials about the original moon landing and subsequent implosion of the U.S. space program. By far the most fascinating and moving is the essay by Tom Wolfe that appeared in The New York Times two days ago.
Titled “One Giant Leap to Nowhere,” it presents Wolfe’s oh-so-lucid and impassioned diagnosis of what went wrong with the U.S. space program in the wake of the moon landing. Specifically, says Wolfe, “NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.” He recalls the electrifying combination of existential fear and giddy excitement that characterized the space race between the U.S. and the Soviets, and points out that, unfortunately, all of this potential fodder for a truly enduring mythic vision was utterly expended on a kind of single combat-style approach to the idea and practical project of space travel. “From the moment the Soviets launched Sputnik I into orbit around the Earth in 1957,” he writes, “everybody from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on down looked upon the so-called space race as just one thing: a military contest,” an epic battle of virtuous us against evil them, with our respective heroes, the John Glenns etc., playing the roles of our warrior champions.
On the morning after [the moon landing], congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?
The tragedy of this realization and its concrete aftermath — the four-decade implosion and marginalization of NASA — is seen, says Wolfe, in the fact that there really was and is a powerful philosophical goal (what I prefer to call a mythic vision) that informs the idea of space travel. He says he heard it articulated beautifully by an elderly Werner von Braun in the 1970s, near the end of von Braun’s life:
[As paraphrased from memory by Wolfe:] Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
But, Wolfe points out dryly, “NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.”
He closes with a really brilliant insight and assertion that touches not only on the U.S. space program’s critical need but on the critical need that our civilization as a whole faces right now, as we stagger through an epochal crisis:
What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.
July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.
“The power of the Word.” Maybe I’ll be forgiven for using this provocation to launch into a quote from Ray Bradbury, who has waxed eloquent and excitable about the mythic aspect of space travel many times in his multi-decade writing career.
In his short story “The Toynbee Convector,” Bradbury tells of a man who saves human civilization from its multiple crises, most especially a grave crisis of spirit, by faking a trip into the future and “bringing back” a story about the better world we will end up creating for ourselves. In a massive exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy — which was precisely the man’s point and plan — his story lifts the human race out of its despair and sparks an excited desire to begin working toward that better future.
Here’s how the old man justifies his grand deception:
I was raised in a time . . . when people had stopped believing in themselves. I saw that disbelief, the reason that no longer gave itself reasons to survive, and was moved, depressed and angered by it . . . . Everywhere was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism . . . . The impossibility of change was the vogue . . . . Bombarded by dark chaff and no bright seed, what sort of harvest was there for man in the latter part of the incredible twentieth century? Forgotten was the moon, forgotten the red landscapes of Mars, the great eye of Jupiter, the stunning rings of Saturn.
. . . . “Life has always been lying to ourselves . . . . [T]o gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born.
Now that’s an instance, albeit a fictional one, of Wolfe’s “power of the Word.” But then, fiction is exactly what we’re talking about — isn’t it? — whenever we talk about the Word, the meaning-creating Logos.
Fiction-makers of the world, your time has come.