Sunday, July 19, 2009

…And What Would That Philosopher Corps Say?

I think that Tom Wolfe has it wrong, big-time, about the space program. We could, of course, always use a “philosopher corps,” for many things, but I don’t think that was all that was wrong with the selling of the space program.

“Like many another youngster at that time, or maybe retro-youngster in my case, I was fascinated by the astronauts after Apollo 11,” says Wolfe. I suspect that that sentence would be more accurate if you substituted “little boy” for “youngster.”

I was an avid science-fiction reader at the time, and had traveled far in space in my mind — to many different planets, the stars slipping by the ports of the spaceship in between, or the swirl and black and emergence from interdimensional travel. I was an avid reader of many things, and had had built up a tolerance to the implicit sexism of so much that was written at that time. I could identify with any sort of hero, including those that weren’t even human.

The point of space travel was, for me, to see new sights and meet new beings. And then came Apollo.

Perhaps it was my age: the early teens are when a girl is discovering her sexuality, and so is everyone else. I was running into roadblocks I had not experienced before.

That great triumph for man and mankind broke something in my desire for space travel. They were all men; I had planned to be out there in just a few years. They were all test pilots; I had planned for an easy computer-controlled ship. The clear message was that space was not for me, and even if I could fight that fight among the others that were building in my life, it would be a very long time indeed. And the Moon looked pretty dead.

I read little science fiction after that. Perhaps I would have grown out of it anyway. I found other interests, other enthusiasms.

I knew what I wanted from space travel, but I’m wondering what purpose that philosopher corps might have explicated. Kennedy’s purpose was a unifying national goal that could bring progress on both the defense and domestic fronts. Once we got to the Moon, that was done.

Wolfe lists a few possible purposes: defense against attack from space; a more general competition with the Soviets; leaving Earth in the far future when the Sun burns up. The philosopher corps would need some content in selling the space program. But Wolfe seems implicitly to depend on that little-boy enthusiasm.

Only three women are mentioned in Wolfe’s op-ed. We have Neil Armstrong, Prometheus, Wernher von Braun, an engineer turned tour guide, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, among other men. The women? Scarlett O’Hara and her desire to think about tomorrow, Christa McAuliffe, a passive space tourist who died, and Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian astronaut who, Wolfe tells us, was one of those “risked their lives by sitting on top of rockets and having their comrades on the ground light the fuse and fire them into space like the human cannonballs of yore.” Passive, all of them, not like Wolfe’s manly astronaut heroes.

Lacking a clear purpose, the space program would have had to have some personal appeal to voters who were not middle-aged astronauts or little boys. For too long, it didn’t, and by the time NASA figured out that it wasn’t just a macho game, it was too late.


helmut said...

I take anyone calling for a philosopher corps with a grain of salt. But one thing philosophers do well is criticism of concepts, norms, and values, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Maybe that perspective would have been helpful in chipping away at the image of the male, militarized hero towards a view of space exploration as an open extending the limits of the human mind, as you're suggesting.

MT said...

It's easier to sell by pandering to existing sensibilities than by aiming overhead in hope of raising consciousnesses to meet you there. Maybe if Amelia Earhart had been alive and available as spokesperson. It would be hard to sell the moon shot by appealing to its likeness with the discovery of radium. I suppose women became U.S. astronauts only once having women astronauts became a salable point.

Marcia Space said...

I was three years old at the time of the first moon landing and was an avid follower of the Apollo missions.

I never felt that being an astronaut was something that only men could do or that I couldn't be one because I was female.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Marcia, I suspect that our difference in ages is the difference in our reaction. At 13 or so, I was just beginning to run into the barriers that were there for girls at that time. I didn't feel that I couldn't do the astronaut stuff, but rather that I wouldn't be allowed to and that the fight wouldn't lead to a reality resembling my space dreams. And that was a pretty accurate assessment.

A decade later, you would have run into less opposition. But look at who Wolfe talks about: there's a reality to the predominance of men that he's fine with, doesn't even see.