As U2’s The Edge wrote in an online chat some years ago, “Mars is a great idea. I’m all in favor of Mars.” And I’m thrilled that we’ve put a fancy golf cart on the surface of said planet. But back when Evel Knievel was plastering himself all over canyon walls and avocado seemed like a viable color, sending people to Mars was apparently only a matter of time. Now we’ve planned another, more modest robotic Mars probe, and that’s about the size of things.
No Imperial star destroyers, no Dark Star, no nothing.
In pondering what happened, I finally realized what was staring me in the face: we didn’t go to the moon because going to the moon was a worthy bit of scientific ambition. Nope. We did it to prove that we were better than the Russkis. If Iran had a space program, we’d probably be on Mars by now.
Thinking big is only widely popular when it’s a contest or profitable. I hate that it’s true, but pondering big-scale issues like, oh, the nature of the universe is considered some sort of fancy indulgence by us boot-strap-loving Americans. Overstatement, yes, considering what American scientists and artists have accomplished (and aforementioned golf cart). But still, I’m bummed. Because all my Saturday afternoon sci-fi double feature research is now in vain. I was really hoping that boning up on souffle-like aliens and raygun tech would be helpful.
Not that it isn’t, at least in journalism.
That was yesterday. Now our site’s back up, and it’s Sept. 11. Stick with me here, because this is a sidetrip that comes back to the main road.
What astonishes me most about the events of exactly 11 years ago today is the trajectory that followed: a window opened, a time when generosity of spirit and a sense of global connectedness actually existed. It lasted maybe a month, and it was substantial. It seemed for a while that something astonishing, a sea change of overwhelming good was going to come from the terrible, traumatic events of 9/11.
But it was as if the universe had conspired to have the worst possible people steering the ship of state. Once the heat perked up beneath a country that had exactly nothing to do with 9/11, everything did indeed change. We’d been momentarily stunned out of our stupor of consumerism and nationalist jingoism by such trauma. But the opportunity was squandered. The easier, reptilian-brain response of fear and fight kicked in. We retreated to a position of American exceptionalism, holding fast to the puerile and demonstrably untrue idiocy of “they hate us for our freedom.” Never mind that “they” clearly said they hated us because of our presence in the Arabian peninsula and our political positions on important matters in the Arab world. Easier to go with “freedom fries” and all that “greatest nation” stuff.
I hope that we collectively get out of the stupor again someday, and in a non-traumatic way. But such things are exceptionally rare. I’m not banking on it. Such times open the window, too, to thinking about what really matters. To me, that equals endeavors scientific and artistic. It’s easy to dismiss such high-flown stuff as impractical, to invoke “the real world,” but golfcarts on Mars are just as real as your 401(k). We’ve got the pictures to prove it. I’m glad that enough of the best urges in us remains that we can stare at those strange and inspiring images today. Somehow it reminds me of the only good that came from a terrible time.