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Essay: Stardust Memories

6 minute read
Dennis Overbye/A Former Senior Editor Of Discover Magazine, Dennis Overbye Is Writing A Book On Cosmology.

NASA’s long ordeal is nearly over. The space shuttle has again shown it can blast astronauts into orbit on biblical smoke pillars. There is much to admire in the sight of the astronauts circling the earth in their splendid reusable spaceship, but there is also something disappointing. For the past two decades the American space program has been going mainly in circles, riding a splendid shuttle to nowhere. Once upon a time NASA launched men to the moon and sent robots across the solar system; there was even brave talk of expeditions to Mars. Now that the nightmare is over, NASA needs a dream again.

Thursday morning, as I sat in front of the television watching NASA technicians worry the Discovery through its countdown, I ate a star for breakfast. The star was in the form of a waffle. It consisted mostly of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen, with a sprinkling of other elements. Except for the hydrogen, those atoms had been forged in a star that exploded and died long before our sun and solar system were born. The hydrogen was made in the big bang that allegedly began the universe. Some astronomers think that it was on dust grains floating in interstellar space that these atoms first assembled themselves into the organic molecules that are the forerunners of life, and that the water that is three-quarters of my body came from a comet.

My waffle and I, happily united by the time of lift-off, are stardust. So are we all. We don’t have to go into space. We’re already there and always have been, whirling about the sun at 18 miles per second, carrouseling around the galaxy, fleeing the other galaxies at millions of miles per hour. Rick Hauck and his comrades weren’t going anywhere but home.

The power and allure of the space program, it seems to me, come from its connection with that giddy sense of the unknown. When we explore the universe, we explore ourselves. We seek the source of the cosmic-ray winds that mutate our genes and the comet showers that may periodically extinguish species; we seek the name of that star whose dust is under our fingernails. There is plenty of science in the space program, but the space program is not science; there is technological fallout, but it’s not about technology. It’s about, or should be about, consciousness and the mystery of our own destiny. The space truck to nowhere, sophisticated as it is, gets us to orbit but doesn’t give us any lift.

The space program was last seen in the 1960s and early ’70s, when the moon landings had to share television time with Viet Nam and burning ghettos. Since then, NASA, several Administrations and Congresses have found it politically * more expedient to build space hardware than to say what it is going to be used for. NASA and the nation have no program in space, no goal. It’s as if the interstate highway system had been designed before the Louisiana Purchase and only went as far west as New Jersey. They build office parks where they need a truck stop. Most observers now agree that NASA’s emphasis on the shuttle was a mistake. It tried to be all things to all people, cost $10 billion to develop and killed seven people. Nevertheless, NASA is pushing doggedly for an equally nebulous but even more expensive space station. What’s it all for?

There are many space programs, grand dreams, that could reconnect us with our cosmic selves, give shape to NASA’s activities and stop the space agency from making $10 billion wrong turns. They are ideas that were filed in the round basket in NASA’s rush to re-ignite the shuttle’s engines: a manned expedition to Mars, a moon base, a reinvigorated program of unmanned solar system exploration, or even the so-called Mission to Earth, which would strive to understand our own planet before we ruin it for good. Like ambivalent lovers, NASA and the American people have to choose.

Wait a minute, I can hear you saying. Don’t these things cost money? The phrase budget deficit comes to mind. Is this as important as finding the unified theory of physics or housing the homeless? Yes and no. Yes, NASA could save money in the long run by having a clear goal, but why is money so scarce? Every year the U.S. Government invests some $300 billion in a Manichaean mythology that the world is divided by an eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil, light and dark. Why not invest instead in a different mythology? Why not invest a pittance of the military budget in a new mythology of cooperation and evolution, of the earth as a living organism with eyes molded from stardust, still dumb but trying to learn?

The Soviet Union has begun a generation-long program to explore Mars that is expected to end with cosmonauts landing on the Red Planet, so prominent in the sky these nights, soon after the turn of the century. A Soviet scientist has announced that an automated roving vehicle will land there in 1994; one of its jobs will be to look for fossils. Fossils on Mars?

Why shouldn’t we join the Soviets in their great adventure, as they have continually beseeched us? As humans we shouldn’t care who makes the big discovery or what language it is reported in. But as humans we should like to see a thing done as well as possible, and it is still our turn to lead, to help invest in the new mythology. The American space program has become a kind of monument that we have bequeathed to future generations and the other peoples of our planet. It is a homage to humility and hope, a promise, like great art or science, that we can escape, that we can loose the bonds that chain us to ourselves and soar. The rockets are soaring again. But they’re not going anywhere — yet.

There’s a famous story about Robert Wilson, the founder of Fermilab (where they do look for the grand and unified theory). Wilson was asked once by a penurious congressional committee if Fermilab contributed anything to the national defense. No, answered Wilson, it just helped make the country worth defending. So did the space program.

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