“The bank bailout — that sum of money is greater than the 50-year running budget of NASA. And so when someone says we don’t have enough money for [space exploration], I’m asking, “No it’s not that you don’t have enough money, it’s that the distribution of money you’re spending is warped in some way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow”. You remember the 60s and 70s, you didn’t have to go more than a week before there’s an article in LIFE magazine, “The Home of Tomorrow”, “The City of Tomorrow”, “Transportation of Tomorrow”. All that ended in the 1970s. When we stopped going to the moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming. And so I worry that decisions Congress makes doesn’t factor in the consequences of those decisions on tomorrow.”
This meme (from a television appearance by the downright wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson) enjoyed an all-too brief life on the social networking sites a few months ago before fading quickly from view.
For too long now I have been searching (and struggling) for just the right words to encapsulate what we seem, as a people, to be missing right now.
That it took a man light years ahead of me on an intellectual level to find those words should come as no great surprise. I’m just happy he did.
Every generation — once it reaches a certain collective age — invariably feels the world is crashing down around their ears. “Kids these days, they don’t have no respect, I tell ya ….”
The truth is, any quick perusal of history — both modern and ancient — presents a world that seems endlessly and forever on the verge of utter chaos and ruin. Yet, despite this, the human race’s most admirable and redeeming quality has always been this: the ability to look forward. To dream.
But more than that, to put those dreams into motion. And perhaps nothing better encapsulates mankind’s drive to conquer insurmountable odds than the space race of the 1960s.
Of all the images I’ve seen in my life — both terrible (the Twin Towers) and great (the fall of the Berlin Wall), none filled me with the giddy, beautiful, transcendent feeling that anything is possible more than the sight of those two lone men standing in the lifeless air of a faraway rock.
In the early 60s, when President Kennedy challenged us to reach the moon by the end of the decade it seemed little more than a pipe dream.
And yet, despite the inevitable political wrangling, we as a nation took up the gauntlet. We not only accepted the challenge but we embraced Gene Krantz’ mission control mantra that “failure is not an option.”
More to Tyson’s point — when did we stop thinking (and dreaming) about tomorrow? As a child of the 60s and 70s, I clearly (and dearly) remember what Tyson refers to. In no small part due to the dizzying effects of our string of impossible successes in the Space Race, children in my generation were somewhat in awe of what the future would bring. One thing was certain: it was going to be spectacular.
Tyson is right: magazines were flooded with articles about the homes of tomorrow. And spaceflight of the future. And technology of tomorrow.
So, the questions, remains: What happened to tomorrow? Tyson postulates that political and corporate expedience has all but killed it. Every decision is based on the perilous idea of what most benefits a politician or corporation RIGHT NOW. No consideration whatsoever as to what it might mean five or ten years down the road.
But by removing the consideration of a better tomorrow, we remove one of the most powerful motivators known to our species. For what greater goal is there than to strive for a tomorrow that is better than today?
At the risk of veering dangerously close to Pollyanna territory (look it up, kids), optimism — cautious or otherwise — seems to be a fundamental thread of our culture’s evolution. And it’s high time to start talking about it again. To start dreaming. To start building a bridge in the sky.
What are some of the things that we all yearn for? A cure for cancer? An end to war? A world in which no child goes hungry?
But, you say, those things are all impossible. Really? Any more so than launching three men into the heavens with about a hundredth of the technology you currently have in your phone?
If these things really do appear impossible, maybe that’s all the more reason we should commit to doing them.
For those eternal footprints in the dust of our celestial neighbor are testament to the idea that sometimes the only difference between impossibility and reality is our strengths of will.
And an undying determination that better days await.