What a view.

Source: NASA

When Space Could Still Awe

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I can still remember the Life magazine cover. Fifty years ago today, on June 3, 1965, Edward White walked in space. Two weeks later -- time ran differently back then -- the brightly colored image of the U.S. astronaut bobbing above a sea-blue earth was in every living room.

True, a Soviet cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, had accomplished the same feat two and a half months earlier. But the celebration of White’s achievement involved more than jingoism. The photographs of the American dangling in space left us breathless with wonder. Before considering why that awe was important, let's take a moment and consider what the era was like.

QuickTake The New Space Race

For much of the 1950s and 1960s, people were afraid that the U.S. had lost its edge. In the popular imagination, the Soviet missile scientists -- like the Soviet chess players, ballerinas and Olympic athletes -- were leaving the world in the dust. Tom Wolfe, in “The Right Stuff,” memorably captures the fundamental belief that led the U.S. to its wild celebration of the courage of its early astronauts: “Our rockets always blow up.”

The nation fretted. Unlike the Soviets, the U.S. had conducted its major rocket experiments in full view of the press. The experiments were just that -- experiments -- and, yes, a few of them blew up. That’s why, in the eyes of the news media, the original Mercury astronauts basked in a radiance unimaginable today. As Wolfe memorably puts it, they were “ablaze with the superstitious aura of the single-combat warrior.” During the grueling selection process, they were all but unknown to the public. Then the lucky seven were presented to the public, and “by the next morning the seven Mercury astronauts were national heroes. ... Even though so far they had done nothing more than show up for a press conference, they were known as the seven bravest men in America.”

Manned space exploration at the time was a mark of superpower status, and the rest of the world was more than willing to cede the relevant ground. In the late 1950s, the United Nations appointed an ad hoc committee to study what the UN might do to encourage cooperation in space exploration. The committee decided that individual nations had the matter well in hand, and there was no role for the UN to play. (Try to imagine that happening today.)

The space race mattered, and the U.S. always seemed to be playing catch-up. The Soviet Union lofted a satellite before the U.S. In April 1961, a Soviet cosmonaut became the first human to orbit the earth. In his speech to Congress the next month, President John Kennedy was explicit about the reason the U.S. had to be first to the moon: “dramatic achievements in space” would be crucial “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.”

Through most of the ’60s, Kennedy’s dream seemed implausible. The U.S. was simply too far behind. In October 1964 -- seven months before White’s spacewalk from a two-man capsule -- the Soviets had already launched a three-man spacecraft, Voskhod 1.  As primitive as the Voskhod was, NASA needed four years to duplicate the feat.

In the end, of course, the U.S. did beat the Soviets to the moon. Not long after, the U.S.S.R. scrubbed its plans for a lunar landing. And in 1975, a decade after White’s achievement, the Apollo-Soyuz mission effectively announced an end to competition.

In retrospect, the new era of cooperation was welcome. That we no longer see technological achievement in competitive nationalistic terms has been a net plus. Yet something was lost along the way. Through a strange process of inversion, the U.S. victory rendered space travel boring.

Some say we’re no longer explorers; others, that we no longer want heroes. Norman Mailer complained that the “technologese” in which NASA surrounded itself had rendered space travel untranslatable for the masses, and therefore unexciting. Maybe there are bits of truth in all of these explanations.

My own answer is that we’ve lost what the classicist William Young Sellar described in 1855: “In those matters that lie within the reach of human cognition, the sense of wonder impels the intellect to investigation.” In short words, we’re too hard to impress.

That’s too bad. Exploring the universe around us matters for reasons quite apart from either national pride or the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge. The late philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in his last book, “Religion Without God,” saw a shared awe of the cosmos as the commonality that might build a bridge of understanding between religionists and atheists. Not a bad idea -- but it can’t work without the awe.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying we should bust the budget to go back into outer space. Rather, I’m worried that whoever accomplishes the next great space feat, too many of us will respond with a collective shrug.

There’s a sad moment near the end of “The Right Stuff” when Wolfe writes about the way the test pilots kept trying to set manned flight records after the world’s attention had shifted to the space program: “Of course, all aircraft records were losing their dazzle. ... It was getting to be like setting some sort of new record for railroad trains.”

Now that we’re thoroughly earthbound once more, space travel is getting to be like that too. China’s plan to land a rover on the dark side of the moon has excited little interest. Maybe the potential joint Russian-Chinese venture to build a manned base on the moon by 2030 -- if it ever happens -- will make a difference.

I hope so.  A little childlike wonder might do us some good.

  1. So committed was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to besting the U.S. in space that he was actually away watching the launch of Voskhod 1 when plotters in Moscow, led by Leonid Brezhnev, decided secretly to remove him.

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net