Here’s a little confession that, at this point in my life, won’t do a single soul any harm (and it’s not even connected to partisan politics): As a girl growing up first on a military base in then West Germany and later with my family in Dallas, I hated the space program.
I had no interest in space shuttles, let alone memories of heroic astronauts and moon landings. I didn’t care that Sally Ride was the first American girl-naut, and I didn’t shed too many tears when teacher Christa McAuliffe and her crew went up in flames when the space shuttle Challenger went “boom” in 1986.
I had bigger fish to fry, or so I thought at the time, and a government that spent money on NASA and space exploration was one that spent even more — tons more — on weaponry and missile shields. No thanks to that testosterone, even if you threw a few girls in to make it palatable for the American PR palate which, in the 1980s, was beginning to tilt decidedly toward inclusion. Inclusion I could live with. Rockets, less so.
I did rather like the idea of planets and galaxies, but kept that predilection to TV where Captain Picard could be my “Star Trek” hero. He seemed a decent enough guy, and why not let TV entertainment cure the ills of imagined worlds?
But here’s the thing: I’ve changed my mind. Here I am, flirting with that 50 zone and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m wistful. But it’s more than that — bigger and broader.
Over the last nearly total two years of Trump and COVID (especially the latter), I’ve come to truly disdain the endlessly defensive attitude of those around me who’ve made “safety first” into a tyrannical mantra that’s upset any kind of risk-taking in a way I never dreamed I’d see.
Sure, some people want to hit the road again and travel, but many don’t — not at all — and others spend their time worrying about the unvaccinated, or the vaccinated that might be vulnerable to the Delta, Beta, Theta, or whatever other viral sorority is making the breaking news and social media rounds.
Some people think they’re bold if they go to a movie, since, good God, there are others present — even if caped and masked. The virus has become a shield behind which everyone who ever had any kind of agoraphobic neurosis can hide, all the more so because face-to-face isn’t strictly necessary in an age in which the digital is eating alive even teaching, which was supposed to return to “normal” when the virus was under basic control. It is now under basic control, but a lot of nothing is happening in many places and freedom has become the right to keep things tamped down. Freedom is caution because caution is enlightened, and so the wheel goes round.
I won’t belabor the obvious — the world is in a viral rut of its own making and large parts of it still won’t climb out of the fright ditch. It’s amazing to watch, and it’s not clear whether Orwell or Huxley should receive a posthumous Nobel Prize for having at least worried about the possibility of a controlled future under the guise of democracy.
Huxley worried about over-organization: the 1950s tendency to put people in office work boxes so that overtime was all they knew (and all they wanted). Order, hierarchy, discipline — from on high, please. He talked about devices that would bring people so close together they wouldn’t even think of freedom, let alone democracy, because they’d be enslaved to self-involvement and behave in accordance with the norms dictated by their devices.
The funny thing about this monster called Donald Trump: he was vulgar, naughty, bigoted, but in his own way more of a free thinker than any of his political counterparts. He was at times positively nutty, like when he promised to send a woman to Mars as part of his campaign schtick. Contrived? Of course.
But you know what? I wouldn’t be at all upset — in fact, I’d be in awe — if somewhere out there, tumbled and pushing forward, was an American aircraft launched and headed for Mars.
No more laughter from me. I’d look at it as an example of at least trying to expand who we are, rather than indulging in internecine quarrels about red and white (masks or not). I’d see the people in the craft as pioneers, risk-takers, people who might make it and might not — and even if they did, given the distances, they might not come back. I think ahead.
I’d think of the future. I’d see landing on Jupiter as a form not of space travel, per se, but of optimism, of wanting to go against the grain in sheepish time. I’d even follow the astronauts’ Twitter feeds, wanting to know what they saw out there in the void, so far away from restrictions and self-defeating “safety first” edicts. Because going to Mars would, itself, defeat “safety first.”
Going out there is hazardous. It’s not driving to the store. It’s not sitting there as an app makes your food and dinner choices while you wait for some underpaid guy to drop off your daily bread. It’s not culture-based, under the proud bluster of running for cover or making sure cover’s near at hand. It’s not coming to think, every time you have a cold, that you might have COVID or Ebola or some other sure-to-kill-you malady whose symptoms you can share with your social media friends.
So I take it all back. I apologize, Sally Ride. I now see the Challenger disaster differently, and respect those who tried to go out into the wild blue yonder. And the same goes for the crew of the Columbia, burned alive during reentry but lost to post-9/11 anxiety — did terrorists shoot them down?
I say to Yuri Gagarin and John Glen, both risk-takers of the highest order, thank you for doing that. And thank you, Eagle, for landing in 1969 because now it means something to go beyond your earthly woes (and there were plenty in the 1960s), to do something distinctly amazing — something that brought the world, even the Communists, to a standstill, their Russian jaws dropping. They even congratulated the United States — a first that never happened again.
The world said, “If this can be done, anything is possible.” Quite the opposite of today’s tune. So it is that, at night, I think of that Trump girl headed for Mars, maybe borrowed from a latter-day Hooters, and still say a prayer for her, thank her for trying. I say, “Go girl!” before I turn the light off.
If she lands — or when she lands — in my dreams, I’ll be the first to tell you.