Friday, May 16, 2008

Space Age

Endless conversation


I was motivated to a great extent in my youth by the expectation that I would one day own a NASA Jet Pack. Every kid in my town saw the televised demonstration: A man stands stiffly in a spacesuit with jet-fuel tanks on his back. The pack ignites and he rises from the ground, maneuvering unsteadily above the trees, using toggle switches and his swinging legs for balance. It was an unwieldy vehicle and I don't remember ever seeing him land it. In fact, I don't think we were meant to. The Jetsons cartoons were on TV, Apollo missions were taking men to the moon. Every kid I knew expected, at the very least, to have a personal helicopter within a few years, probably a Jet Pack or two. We studied hard, ate our vegetables and waited for the future.

By 1975 it became apparent that the Space Age was a bit of a ruse. The moon turned out to be the worthless slag heap everyone supposed it to be. Even as I dreamt of unfettered flight to far-away lands—possibly to other worlds—there were kids still starving in India and black sharecroppers living nearby who had never even left the county. How many Jet Packs would there be to go around?

Gil Scott-Heron wrote a song called "Whitey on The Moon," poking fun at the expense of Apollo missions in light of the growing squalor and desperation of the inner cities of America. The only personal helicopter I ever saw was made from an upside-down, Briggs and Stratton push-lawnmower bolted together above a chair by a resourceful Georgia farmer. We heard that his experiment ended badly.

Pretty soon the space race gave way to an even bigger and more expensive pissing match: the arms race. The Cold War seemed to swallow every grain of hope and invention into its maw. Soon after outspending and out-engineering the Russians, we are facing greater environmental catastrophes than ever, along with rising political instability. Hundreds of millions of people lack electricity and clean water to drink. And nobody has a Jet Pack.

But what if I have been missing the point of NASA all along? Rather than launching mankind to the stars, and giving every kid a Jet Pack, the astronaut heroes of the Space Age launched something even more profound, and ultimately more transforming: They turned the world in upon itself. I think of this when I am "Google-Earthing" obscure regions of the planet—as though from outer space—using NASA photographs taken from a ring of satellites positioned and maintained in Earth's orbit over the last 50 years.

The experience of outer space brought at least one astronaut to the study of inner space. Naval air captain and astronaut Edgar Mitchell saw our planet from a cramped space capsule while returning from the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1972, and was "engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness," according to the Web site of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Mitchell's epiphany led him to found IONS, a non-profit organization that "conducts and sponsors leading-edge research into the potentials and powers of consciousness—including perceptions, beliefs, attention, intention and intuition."

As a planet we are already as far out in space as we are ever going to get, surrounded by a vast, frozen darkness, and enormous burning stars. Now I can see that my Jet-Pack dream of power and escape was only a metaphor for a growing human consciousness. Maybe I was supposed to learn to walk on the Earth, before dreaming of the stars.

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