Six months ago, President Obama asked a team of academics, astronauts, and aerospace executives to give him options for the future of the space program. Those options, as described in the Augustine Committee's just-released final report, must have sent a little thrill up our Spock-loving nerd in chief's leg: setting up a lunar base, flying to a Martian moon, etc. There's just one catch: NASA doesn't have the resources it needs to pursue these plans. Exciting proposals for voyages to alien moons aside, the report's attention to dollars and cents makes it a cosmic buzzkill. (Article continues below...)
Though the committee has kind words for commercial-space programs and international partnerships, the fate of America's space adventure seems to depend on an overstretched, debt-saddled public agreeing to cough up more money over more years. When John F. Kennedy faced this dilemma, he used a mix of Cold War fears, national pride, and New Frontier optimism to send Americans hurtling toward the moon. But President Obama can't rehash JFK's arguments and expect that NASA can once again command nearly 5 percent of the federal budget. The Soviet menace—which provided some of the motivation in the 1960s—hasn't been replaced by a comparably terrifying threat from above, nor does the galvanizing effect of Kennedy's assassination apply.
If Obama wants to send us even farther into space than JFK did, he'll need to capture our imaginations: to enchant us with fresh visions of what we'll find out there. But he shouldn't have to do it by himself. President Kennedy wasn't speaking idly when, in his epochal speech kicking off the moon shot, he said that "in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon … it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
Since the work that most needs doing now is stirring up the imagination of the American people about the possibilities of space exploration, a special role falls to the people in the imagination business: our creative artists. This doesn't mean that writers and filmmakers should propagandize on behalf of rocket-fuel appropriations, only that when they do great work about space—for whatever reason they do it—they refocus the public eye heavenward. Too bad they've been doing such a lousy job of it lately.
Our achievements in space have been nudged or nurtured by our culture since long before Alan Shepard reached orbit in his glorified tin can. As Craig Nelson points out in Rocket Men, his recent history of the Apollo program, fiction helped to prime 20th-century scientists' imaginations. "Novelists can rarely be credited with inspiring wholly new avenues of science and technology," he writes of one of Jules Verne's books, "yet all three of rocketry's founding fathers read From the Earth to the Moon, and it changed the course of their lives." Artists also personalize and make comprehensible a cosmos that is unimaginably remote. From the ancient mythmakers who gave us the zodiac to the kids who will sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" before bedtime tonight, culture has projected contemporary meaning on the blackness of space. It's no accident that the original Star Trek series aired during the three most frenetic years of the Apollo program, both reflecting and helping to shape the New Frontier aspirations of NASA. Closer to home, I wouldn't be writing this essay—and maybe you wouldn't be reading it—without the formative influence at a malleable age of several hundred viewings of The Empire Strikes Back.
But what has culture done to fuel our interstellar dreams lately? A survey of the popular fictional work in this decade turns up grim results. Over the summer, ABC produced Impact, a miniseries that capped its bad acting and cliché plots by splitting the poor old moon in two—a gratuitous act of interplanetary violence. J. J. Abrams's big-screen Star Trek reboot was a better-than-average summer popcorn flick, but lost in all its exciting fight scenes was the aura of wonder and camaraderie that might explain why the young Barry Obama (as he later put it) "grew up on" the original series. Battlestar Galactica earned some snob approval for sci-fi a few years back, using its setup (the last survivors of the annihilation of humanity on the run) to explore such issues as cloning and civilian-military ties. But the relationships never seemed all that compelling, and the production design somehow made even the distant cosmos look like a Canadian soundstage. Most egregious of all are the Star Wars prequels, which are interesting mainly for the chance to watch George Lucas ignore so completely the message of his own films—embracing soulless technology over such human concerns as story and character, ineluctably giving in to his own Dark Side.
An exception to this trend is Joss Whedon's swashbuckling series Firefly and follow-up movie Serenity. In its offhand, off-kilter way—imagine a Western in space, starring the A-Team—it made me laugh and held my interest. It's the only mainstream sci-fi lately that made me dream even briefly of zipping through space, or feel more willing to cough up tax dollars so somebody else could do the same.
To say that culture has a vital role to play in the future of space exploration doesn't just mean that we need more movies about Wookiees. Movies about Wookiees—good ones, anyway—are only a means to an end, one that can and must be reached in many ways. Americans need to be excited about science itself, to be reminded that our technical ingenuity can yield delights sweeter than an ever-shrinking iPod.
Richard Holmes showed us a healthier approach to science recently in his fascinating book The Age of Wonder. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, British scientists and artists struck up an extraordinary rapport—that is, when they weren't the very same people. One of the book's heroes is William Herschel, the musician-astronomer who built the world's most powerful telescopes, discovered Uranus, and overturned old notions of cosmic space and time. Coleridge and Shelley thrilled to the imagination-expanding effects of breakthroughs like these. "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken;" wrote Keats in 1816, linking Herschel's astronomical milestone to literary greatness and the discovery of the Pacific.
What scientists and artists shared then, and what we need to regain now, is a fascination with what Holmes calls "the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilous." That central metaphor of Romanticism doesn't apply only to Joseph Banks going to Tahiti with Captain Cook, he writes—it's also the poet who ventures into his own memories, or the chemist who risks his life experimenting on himself. If we understand the Romantic hero in this way, nobody in the last half century has deserved the title more than the astronauts.
Nelson's account of the moon shot is full of unintended echoes of the Romantic era. When Michael Collins returned from the Apollo 11 mission, having circled the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humanity's first steps on the surface, Charles Lindbergh told him that he "had an experience of in some ways greater profundity" than his crewmates: "you have experienced an aloneness unknown to man before." A nurse who treated the early astronauts after their missions said it was "as if they had fallen in love with a mystery up there." These observations would be immediately familiar to the scientists and poets of Holmes's age of wonder.
Note, however, that they don't come from the astronauts themselves. Waxing lyrical has never been part of the astronaut's job description, which helps explain why the two most charismatic figures in NASA today are Spirit and Opportunity, the plucky robots patrolling the surface of Mars. For the space program to achieve and sustain the public support it needs, it won't be enough for Obama to be his inspiring self, or for artists to enchant us with visions of life on Mars—NASA itself needs to help the public grasp that sending human consciousness 40 million miles into space can be its own mesmerizing reward.
In his recent memoir, Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin, the most visible member of the astronaut corps today, offered NASA an intriguing suggestion: sending an artist into space. It's a shame that Shelley and Coleridge aren't here to leap at the offer, or even a young Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001 is, according to astronauts, the best depiction of space short of being there. But maybe someone even more suitable is out there waiting to be found: the true Romantic hero of our 21st-century space adventure. I hope NASA finds some charismatic young pilot who fits the bill, and I hope it exhausts itself telling us about him or her. We might need a little star power to make it out to the stars.