Challenger and Columbia
by James Strauss
What is the meaning of life?
Or is it some sort of satisfaction? Is individual human thought and action meaningful through time, or is it the thought and action taken by many people thinking and working together? What of exceptional individual behavior and what of that same thing when it’s the product of dedicated group behavior? These are the kinds of questions usually pondered in philosophy classes or by small klatches of academic’s sitting around round tables in campus coffee houses. It is likely the meaning of life changes over time, and that it is more heavily influenced by group behavior than individuals, simply because much more significant production capability is arrived at when people get together to do something. Leonardo da Vinci invented the first applied concept of flight, as we have come to know it, designing what he called an ornithopter in 1480 A.D. The actual concept of humans taking flight, though, was conceived much earlier, thousands of years ago in Greece, China and India. Yet it is only the advent of group dynamics and integrated social behavior, that produced the manifestation of this concept into current aviation technologies resulting in effortless travel around the planet at will.
Flight isn’t all there is to the meaning of life, but it certainly can be used metaphorically to understand direction in life. Flight is about lift and the uplifting of weight necessary to carry human beings or other objects. Some animals fly, as well, and there is little argument about the meaning of those creatures’ lives. For humans, however, to fly is to look, think, and go in a direction we call up. To fly into space, and break the bonds of earthly gravity, is to think, look, and move outward and beyond. There is a value to narcissistic examination and study, but there is also no denying that up and out are the directions that have moved human beings to rise above reactionary animal life to something undeniably divine.
Thirty years ago the space shuttle Challenger exploded and was lost, and something of man’s surge upward and outward died along with the valiant crew of that craft. The United States Space Program took a narcissistic turn inward following this tragedy, and only a few moon shots and visits were completed due to the cultural reaction to this disaster. Instead of climbing up from the brutal blow and surging back outward, the lost shuttle was cloned and sent back into low earth orbit. Low earth orbit might be the better phrase to describe that of the current manned space program. The later loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle was treated as a relatively minor blip, only continuing the nations graph downward toward a more comforting and less adventurous pursuit of the meaning of life. Other cultures are moving to crane their minds upward, towards the stars, while the United States remains mired in denial of the fact that its rockets barely match the technological triumphs exhibited by old Soviet machinery. Old soviet rocket engines (newly built) power such American workhorse machines like the Atlas and Delta rocket systems. There is no fault in NASA and the U.S. military using these old but dependable rockets. No, it’s more a failure of aspiration, a cessation of dreaming about the meaning of life and what it means to engage in outward bound adventure, instead of sitting on the couch and watching repetitive football games, no matter how seemingly filled with drama and good violent fun.
The loss of the Challenger shuttle, and its wonderfully talented crew, did not cause the near terminal descent of America’s true interest in flight. This loss of interest came about because of a loss of vision, supported by the mass media. Few citizens of the U.S. realize that of the 500, or so, Boeing 787s in service (the only modern American jetliner to come on the scene in decades), that less than a hundred fly inside the U.S., and most of the other 1400 ordered have not been ordered by U.S. airlines. In addition, there are no U.S. airlines operating the largest commercial aircraft in the world (Airbus 380).
One must not listen to the messages about flight delivered to the American culture through its mass media in the form of advertisements. Airline travel is generally conducted using air frames nearly twenty years old, and are flown with very few amenities and comforts for passengers. The theoretical U.S. return to manned space in the form of eventual travel to the moon or mars has been undertaken not with new technology, but with the intent to rebuild the same craft as Apollo, only somewhat larger.
One might question how this kind of retro behavior could be in response to the results of ‘advances’ in flight, driven by the desire to explore, or whether it is merely the result of economic necessity. The answer is neither. It’s the direct result of a change in America’s vision with respect to the meaning of life. Citizens who are more than fifty years of age vividly remember when the culture they are a member of was almost of one mind in it’s desire to surge upward into the heavens, and outward into space. Almost every other area of science surged upward and outward with the country’s pursuit of flight, in all of its varied forms. Today, there’s an entirely different orientation toward everything, from economic success to technological advances. The next big invention is about to be a “new” version of the “old” version of the Apple iPhone. Just like it was last year, and the year before. The new computer game will be called II or III, each a version of the past. The new science fiction movies will be new versions of space failures like The Martian or Gravity. There is a whole chunk of the American population waiting for a time when there are no people left, so the planet can ‘recover’ and be less polluted. But these things are the result of a philosophical belief system that has somehow shifted it’s cultural vision downward, to look at the bottom.
A re-orientation needs to be made.
It would only require a sixty-degree rise in the vision of humanity for America, and the rest of the world, to go from looking at the bottom, back to looking up to the heavens. Our attraction to the stars is not that they provide light. The sun is there for that.
Those stars are there to pose a question: “Come on, what are you waiting for?”