It was only a little more than a decade ago that Mars passed close to Earth, just a stones throw, relatively speaking. Many people looked up. Many more people said, "so what?" Just as Brian De Palma's 2000 film, Mission to Mars, had an astronaut making contact with his own humanity as he reached out to alien life forms, and just as Ridley Scott's new movie, The Martian, about a left-behind Matt Damon who brings out the best in all concerned in an effort to bring him home, so too for America. America needs a renewed space program just as Abbott needed Costello: To fully realize itself, to become who it is.
America is on a treadmill. Moving in a simple and recurrent two-dimensional space, burning calories, but going nowhere fast. What is required for physical and spiritual health is a balanced complexity of motion that allows one to be "here" and "out there" -- to be simultaneously in your own personal space and in the space beyond yourself -- such that a new higher-functioning individual with greater authenticity of expression is possible.
In America, the pace is hectic and to stand in place you have to run. No behavior, no feeling, no experience is given time to mature, not even to become routinely complex. Instead, everything is plucked while it is still green and hard. The resulting ethic is to do only what you must to get what you can while keeping your head down. This national ethos doesn't leave much room for hope and reverie. America is boxed-in by the traumas of 9-11, a war brought about on false premises, ponzi greed schemes, the 2008 economic downturn produced by Wall Street shenanigans and its own commodity-based culture -- which is why America must explore space again. Americans need a space program to re-imagine a frontier from which they can open-up from their own "hunkered-down" existence.
The arguments against a space program are coldly logical and sometimes all too true. Too much money. Too little immediate benefit. The problem with those arguments is that they are blind to the human need to address the cosmic questions of life: Who are we? How are we unique? Where did we come from? Where do go from here? Admittedly, these are inquiries that can never be fully answered. But in the search for answers, it is the exploration itself that becomes the driving force.
For this to happen, we need a sense of place that includes what is known and what is unknown and what is possible and what is not. That is the essence of what it was that spawned us. Without that urgency of mind, the time frame of our intentions becomes shorter and our motives become smaller-minded. Our hopes and dreams become as miniaturized as a pad. Moreover, our quest for a common unconscious attaches to pixel-size Marvel heroes who aren't really marvelous. And our need for and promise of wholeness become projected onto all manner of religion-clad performance artists.
As an anthropologist who has traded backpack and quinine tablets for a Hartmann three-suiter and Dramamine, I have lived amongst preliterate tribes who have no information technologies, no malls and no media. At best their world falls short of utopia. Life is hard in the primeval forest. But what these weathered people do have is a general comfort-level borne out of an assumed connectedness to their cosmos. Their mythologies are rock-solid.
America is between mythologies. Gone are the days of a Superpower High Noon. Gone are the days when the biggest is equated with the best. Until recently, part of the glory of America was that it didn't need to know who it was. It could just throw its vast resources at any obstacle and overcome. Our national psyche required no perduring idea of itself. But that world is no more. And we know it.
Ours has been an inelegant and lanky freedom. We need again to open up our world and our vision. Our founding mythology, our America Primal, had one enemy in mind: the familiar. Now we worship that very thing. We, as a nation and as a national psyche, need something to take us out of ourselves so that we can learn better who we truly are.
America, having stumbled into the new millennium, needs to begin to know who and what it is. That kind of self-knowledge would help insulate Americans from the daily fad, the momentary press of impulsive desire and the sound bite. The space program, as impractical and remote as it sometime may seem at first glance, could help us articulate our mundane and intimate experience of ourselves.
A space station rotating out there in the netherworld of weightlessness can help provide the very terrain we require to explore our own concrete nature. We need to float while feeling grounded.
Just as the poet opens to another world and finds that in that other world, he is more fully and consciously in this world, the space program can make poets of us all. In harmony with space; sleek and exploratory.
NASA has currently found water on Mars. Equally significant, a few years ago, a Mars mission detected magnetic objects buried deep in the crust of the Red Planet. What has been measured is a remnant "memory" of an ancient global field encased inside once-molten rocks that, when they solidified and cooled, acquired a memory of their epoch's primordial magnetism.
Perhaps a space program will allow us here on Earth to similarly evoke a trace-feeling of our frontier saga. Americans needs an unexplored frontier to venture into their nationhood and selfhood. That is the space program. That is who we are.