Discovery Arrives in Washington DC

On the face of it, this post doesn’t have anything to do with games.  It may, however, have everything to do with games.

Welcome to the Neighborhood
Yesterday, I watched the space shuttle Discovery, atop its modified 747 transport, fly majestically back and forth in the skies above the nation’s capital, on the way to its final resting place in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy facility located near Dulles International Airport.  I’d been excited to see it from the moment I first heard about the planned flyover; so much so that in my eagerness to get to my chosen observation post at Gravelly Point I leaped on my bike and got halfway down the street before realizing I was only wearing one bike glove (and no, it wasn’t a homage to Michael “you want a sweetie, sweetie” Jackson).  Obviously it was a moment of great historical significance and it was an awe-inspiring sight.  It was also one of those “Wow, I’m living in Washington, DC” moments.  As I watched the shuttle, with its gnat-like jet escort arc gracefully through the sky above the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial, I was reminded of what I so easily take for granted; that I’m living in the capital of one of the most powerful nations on earth.

But the most powerful emotion I felt was an urge to burst into tears.

Obviously there is a lot of tragic history connected with the shuttle program, but that wasn’t it.  I kept thinking about how this moment might be viewed in years to come.  Future generations will look back on this event and see it as the moment where, in effect, we gave up on the future.

Distant Dreams
There’s a lot of personal history wrapped up with every phase of the shuttle program.  As a kid I was heavily into both astronomy and science-fiction.  I also made (and occasionally still do) model kits.  I had a magazine that was devoted entirely to offering tips for making model kits of spacecraft both fantastic and real.  One of the highlights was the section dealing with a kit of the prototype orbiter, Enterprise (the current resident of Discovery’s berth at Udvar-Hazy) atop its transport aircraft, the plane that was used for the initial drop tests.  The old 747, so different from the shiny white version that ferries the shuttles around today, was a converted American Airlines plane and was a modelers dream, with its multiple contrasting shades of grey and silver making for a taxing and elaborate paint job.  I dreamed that one day I would be able to afford (or even get a look at, I was in New Zealand after all) this kit.

Enterprise Drop Tests. NASA photo.

More than that, however, I dreamed about the shuttle.  To some extent those of my friends who were also into sci-fi and also into astronomy all did.  Finally, it seemed as if the future that we had all been reading about and which we’d seen in countless movies was starting to happen.  We’d been to the moon and that was really cool, but we’d just made flying visits.  Now we as a species were really starting to get ambitious.  Part of the measure of what we’ve lost is that it is difficult to convey just how exciting all this was at the time.  We had multiple probes spreading throughout the solar system and not a day seemed to go by that there wasn’t some amazing image sent back by Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, the newest generation of solar measuring devices or some discovery that completely changed what scientists thought they knew about the nature and evolution of our solar system.  In our school library we grabbed the latest astronomy books and stared in awe at the pictures, contemptuously casting aside those published only a couple of years ago as hopelessly outdated.  In the local book stores I eagerly scanned the shelves for new astronomy titles.  One of the best presents I ever received was a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a beautiful book for a famously beautiful television series. . .one that, like the shuttle kit of which I had dreamed, never made it to New Zealand, at least not while I lived there.  But I had the book.  Only to see even its beautiful images surpassed by more astounding imagery from our space exploration efforts.

There were, of course, early signs that this space exploration stuff was a risky business.  The launch of Skylab in 1973 had been a near disaster, succeeding in placing in orbit a heavily damaged and rapidly over-heating chunk of soon-to-be useless space junk.  Then, and not for the last time, heroic efforts by NASA astronauts plucked victory from the jaws of bureaucratic cock-up with a repair mission that helped to prove that people had a permanent place in space, and not simply when conditions were optimal.  Of course, that dream came crashing to earth literally and figuratively.

But that was OK because we had a prototype shuttle.  And then we didn’t just have a shuttle prototype, we had a working shuttle.  And then more shuttles.  Now it was all coming true, everything we’d read and imagined.  There would be space stations.  Moonbases.  Maybe even people on Mars during our lifetime.

It is probably hard for people from the US to appreciate that to a substantial portion of the rest of the earth these forays into space were human accomplishments.  Because for those in the US these were primarily American accomplishments. This was, after all, the Reagan 80s and every major public spectacle slapped a big toothy grin on its face, fluffed its big hair and wrapped itself in a glitter-encrusted flag.  This reached its high (or rather) low-point during the chunder-inducing opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; my friends and I crowded around the single TV in our college dorm rec room and howled derisively at the closing ceremony with its spaceman arriving to give his blessing to this sorry collection of cliche and braggadocio.  Only after living in the US have I realized just how different the 80s were here than where I grew up.  In the US, Reagan is still revered, even by many of a pseudo-liberal persuasion, as the Great Communicator.  Certainly to those of us at the ends of the earth but also, I would hazard a guess, to most people outside the US, he was simply a dick.  In some ways, it is probably a good thing that many in the US seem oblivious to how ridiculous the country looked during this period.

The shuttle launches, especially the early ones, were never free of that, unfortunately.  The shuttle was always offered, implicitly or explicitly, as a symbol of the US technological dominance and inherent moral superiority.  See, in the Free West we have space shuttles!  Over there, in the Evil Empire, they are still using blobs on the end of parachutes.  We kiss the tarmac with our wheels and step out into the hot breeze of the California desert.  They plow into the earth somewhere in outer Mongolia and hope that their kidneys are still intact.

But even living in a country with a pronounced suspicion of anything foreign (unless it was British) and a vexed relationship with the US (which progressively deteriorated politically and diplomatically during the 80s) the shuttle launches were different.  Along with the rest of my family I got up in the middle of the night to watch the first launch live.  Most people I knew did. I’d seen a few of the later Apollo launches and I was used to the slow, stately way the rockets seemed to ease their way off the pad, reluctant to let go their connection with earth.  I watched in awe as the Columbia leaped off the launch pad.  This was a vehicle that couldn’t wait to get into space.  And then–oh my god–the thing rolled on its back.  This wasn’t a firecracker that you lit, stood back and hoped for the best.  This thing could maneuver!

That was the promise of the whole enterprise, right there.  Space was out there, let’s go and get it.  We are agile, and primed to go wherever the dream takes us.  It wasn’t just out there for Americans, it was out there for all of us.

We know what happened next.  I’m not talking about the twin shuttle disasters themselves, although Challenger was another example of the way the shuttle was a human project.  Naturally, it was portrayed in the US media as an “American Tragedy.”  Down in New Zealand, however, the coverage was just as shocking, the disaster as keenly felt.  Not until 9/11 in fact would I have the same feeling as I had that day, watching something over and over again, being aware intellectually of what I was seeing but not being able to accept it, denying that such a thing was in fact possible.

That was the day, of course, that human space exploration changed, even though we didn’t realize it all at once.  The revelations that gradually emerged in the wake of the Challenger explosion indicated massive institutional failures at almost every level.  For that reason the disaster is still one of the most widely studied events for those seeing to learn about institutional failure in relation to large-scale projects, lessons which (hopefully) inform the construction of everything from airliners to public bridges and buildings.  The more pertinent lesson to us young dreamers, raised on sci-fi and indoctrinated in astronomy was more depressing.

Space exploration had become the very thing that we as a species were supposedly trying to leave behind.  Pettineness, greed, corruption, mismanagement, groupthink, profit before people, self before others, immersion in the massively corrupt US bidding and contract system. . .  Over the years, subsequent events reinforced the initial impression.  Far from being a visionary project, space exploration seemed to attract incompetence and mismanagement the way US politics attracts lobbyists.

  • The US launches a space telescope with its fundamental component, the mirror, ground to the wrong specifications (saved, yet again, by an astonishingly difficult, likely to fail, flawlessly executed repair mission).
  • NASA crashes a probe into Mars because half the development team was speaking metric and the other half was speaking in “English” units.
  • The Columbia disintegrates due, again, to massive internal mismanagement at NASA.

Each one a dagger to the heart of the dream.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
If you look closely at the Discovery, either in my photo above or in one of the many excellent ones taken by others that day one thing stands out.

It looks like shit.

Compared with the shiny Enterprise prototype this is clearly a working ship.  The accumulated carbon scoring from repeated re-entries, the general weathering, and this on a vessel that has been more closely maintained and thoroughly overhauled after every use than any other human-made object with the possible exception of Joan Rivers.  If you look even more closely you can see something else: in among the patches of brown, clusters of bright white where tiles have been replaced over the years as the ship has repeatedly been patched.  It is hard to resist the obvious metaphor: battered, patched, hard-working, an engineering marvel that outlived its own ability to inspire awe, was pushed to its limits, was forced to keep working when no other successor showed up until it threatened to drop in the traces.

Certainly space exploration has had its share of successes in the years since the first launch of Columbia.  The Hubble Space Telescope has massively increased our knowledge about the universe.  Unmanned probes continue to unlock the secrets of our own solar system, visiting everything from the lurking gas bulk of Jupiter to comets and asteroids.  NASA’s Mars missions, each one run on a shoe-string budget proved to be marvels of technological ingenuity and robust engineering that briefly fired the public imagination once again.  But the overall picture is a gloomy one.  The shuttle, for a time, made human space-flight routine.  It didn’t make it cost-effective.  More to the point, it didn’t create a next step.  It was the Soviets (then the Russians) with their “antiquated” technology that established a working space station and began figuring out how to live in space for really long periods of time.  Meanwhile the International Space Station was beset by delays and in-fighting, and hobbled by the same corrupt alliance between international governments and multinational corporations that has ensured that the last time a US weapons system came in on budget was when George Washington whittled himself a sharp stick.  When the station was finally complete it was just in time to say goodbye to the shuttle program, leaving the station to be supplied by. . .those same guys with their blobs at the end of parachutes that the US thumbed its nose at during the Cold War.  Now US astronauts are the ones landing in outer Mongolia and checking if their kidneys are still intact.

One lonely space stations circles the earth.

We’re never going to Mars, at least not in my lifetime.

Hell, we’re not even going back to the moon before I die (and I plan to live a very long time).

Finding all these brand spanking new planets is about as relevant as my navel lint, because we’re definitely not going to develop any kind of technology that might get us out there in even the moderately distant future.

All of this makes me think that as time goes on the Apollo missions and the moon landings are going to look more and more amazing to future generations.  Come the year 2100, when we still have (in all likelihood) only one, but maybe two, stations circling the earth and a few private enterprise spacecraft ferrying celebrities into space, people will look back and be amazed that we leapfrogged all of that and went straight for the moon.  We reached for the brass ring.  We went for it.  The shuttle seemed the logical next step, putting us on the road to a steady expansion of space exploration.

And then our nerve failed us.

Oh, I’m familiar with all the usual arguments.  “We should be spending that money here on earth, not in space.”  We have so many problems here, let’s sort those out first.  Except, of course, we don’t.  What do we spend that money on, here on earth?  Well, if you are America at least, you spend it on waging long, bloody, expensive wars against people in economically marginal backwaters.  Think for a moment what the billions and billions and billions spent in Iraq could have bought you in space exploration.  Which expenditure would have left the world better off, do you think?

But the even sadder truth is that humans don’t even spend their money on that kind of thing.  They spend it on crap.  The amount spent to produce John Carter is the same as the cost of one of the original Mars Pathfinder missions.  Which do you think has made a more lasting contribution to humanity?  Congress and “watchdog groups” grew concerned and more watchdoggy as the cost of NASA’s latest Mars rover mission, Curiosity, “skyrocketed” to $2.5 billion.  How much did Americans spend on their pets last year?  Almost $53 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association.  Fifty-three billion to give fluffy a fro versus two and a half billion to try and figure out if there is or ever was life outside of our tiny fragile biosphere.  In general then, humans don’t spend that earthly wealth doing earthly useful things.  They don’t pour money into eliminating world poverty as much as pouring money into creating and purchasing iPads so that Angry Birds can be bigger and, you know, more angry.  Especially if you are an American, you don’t try to wrestle with climate change, or clamor for alternative energy, you buy another SUV or a pickup (because it gets a “fuel efficient” 20 mpg highway).

Americans no longer reach for the stars.  They reach for cars.

But that isn’t because we are an inherently selfish and self-absorbed people.  At least that’s what I tell myself to help me sleep at night.  It is because with the death of the dream of human exploration of space, a dream that died, effectively, with the Challenger explosion (not, it has to be said, because of the loss of life; tragic though the deaths were, the human cost to travel beyond our planetary atmosphere pales before the losses humans experienced merely attempting to travel more than a couple of miles offshore)–the death of that dream took with it the ability to dream big and believe that we could deliver on that dream.  There is no shortage of visionaries; flip through a few of the TED talks, or take a brief look at some of the entries in Google’s Solve for X initiative and you can see that the ability to dream big, inspirational, sparkly dreams hasn’t disappeared.  We just no longer have the courage to attempt to make them a reality.

Here in the US we know that many of our fundamental social systems–medicine, justice, education–are damaged.  We know that our political system is broken to the point of being useless.  We’re aware of the corrosive and corrupting influence of big money on big government (or even small government for that point).  We know, deep down, that our presence sits heavy on the planet, that there is something sick and twisted about human beings in other countries living and dying for pennies a day so that we can have cheap DKNY T-shirts and mobile phones.   There are ideas out there to fix these things.  But we have reality TV, and nice flat screens to watch it on.

Because ultimately, that was the importance of the space program.  It isn’t measured in bang for the buck, for what it gets you in immediate earth cred.  For my young mind especially it was about your imagination.  Specifically, it was fostering the ability to imagine that as a species we might aspire to be something different, better, than the depressing reality of barely-evolved monkey fucking monkey behavior we see all around us.

Meanwhile, night after night, there’s something amazing up in the sky.  A man-made object, the International Space Station, a light in the sky.  Something we made is up there, in space, and we can see it from down here.  The last vestige of the dream, a relic that was supposed to be the first step toward the stars but has become simply the step outside onto the porch before we turn around and settle back in our La-Z-boys.

But we don’t look up anymore.  I know I don’t.  And if we don’t look up, we don’t look around us.

That, I think, is the tenuous connection with the world of videogames.  The loss of that will to make our imagination reality is corrosive.  If you don’t dream big about big things, it becomes that much harder to dream big about small things.  Videogames are, of course, routinely seen as being a symptom of what I’ve described above: the mindless entertainment with which we divert ourselves, the fiddle to our burning Rome.  There is, however, so much potential there, and just occasionally you catch a glimpse of what this form really could achieve.  Yet most of our games are safe, comfortable, completely non-threatening and, in the sense I’ve been describing above, thoroughly unimaginative.  You can’t really blame developers, however; as a species, we seem to have lost the ability to push beyond ourselves.

The final lesson of the shuttle program?  If you reach for the stars, there’s a good chance you’ll hit the moon.  If you simply aim for low earth orbit, you end up falling back to earth with a jarring thunk.