April 25, 2010

The Moon and The Skylight: The Loss of American Imagination

This beautiful skylight is the hand-painted highlight of the Painted Desert Inn, located in Petrified Forest National Park. The Inn and the skylight were created by the CCC.

I have been in the middle of a re-read of Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins' brilliant book on his role in the Apollo program. After reading it, I re-read a few portions of Andrew Chaikin's equally brilliant A Man on the Moon. All this comes after a visit to the Painted Desert Inn, a beautifully restored gem in Petrified Forest National Park. The Inn was renovated and decorated by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of FDR's ingenious ideas for putting young men to work during the Depression. Not only were they put to work re-building an historic inn, but they were allowed to use their artistic expression--painting the skylight, designing tin lamps, and as Coloradoans know, painting murals.

With all these ideas swirling in my head, I read the end of Chaikin's book:
Instead of letting the moon be the gateway to our future, we have let it become a brief chapter in our history. The irony is that in turning away from space exploration--whose progress is intimately linked to the future of mankind--we rob ourselves of the long-term vision we desperately need. Any society, if it is to flourish instead of merely survive, must strive to transcend its own limits. It is still as Kennedy said: Exploration, by virtue of difficulty, causes us to focus our abilities and make them better.

Recently, the continued exploration of the moon has been back in the spotlight--President Obama has issued his recommendations for NASA's future and been confronted by former astronauts.

All of these issues, ideas, and irritants have forced a single idea into my head--we have lost our national imagination. When confronted with an economic downturn, we offer people money for clunker cars, fueling the idea that conspicuous consumption can save us, rather than offering people jobs rebuilding and creating new landmarks and art. When confronted with the future of the Space Program, we choose to borrow Russia Soyuz (built around the time of the Apollo CM and LM) to fly, rather than put our imaginations to work to create a new vessel for exploring the skies.

We have, as Chaikin says, lost our national vision. Politicians are focused on the present, on the now, on what will get them votes. That has been true throughout time, but in my limited study, politicians also used to focus on what would happen in the future--John Adams wanted a Navy even though the US wasn't at war, FDR wanted to give all young men honest jobs, even artists, JFK wanted to inspire American to achieve the unbelievable. Whatever your thoughts and feelings on Kennedy, what cannot be denied is his imagination and inspiration, especially contained in his famous speech at Rice University in 1961:
"We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things--not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Politicians, legislators, public leaders--they are choosing to do things because they are easy, not because they are hard. In this present-minded focus they are neglecting not only the future, but the past. There are still starving artists out there who could be put to work making our country beautiful for the future. There are still young people focused on science and exploration--there may be no frontiers left on land, but there are still frontiers to be explored in space and sea.

Healthcare is important. Jobs are important--but outside of war, FDR's new deal and JFK's moon mission spring to mind as peaceful ways to put people to work. Yes, travelling to the moon cost billions of dollars, but billions of dollars flowing to American workers, not Chinese.

This has been a bit of a rambling rant, and if you actually read this far, you must be related to me. I have no solutions, or challenges. I do not have the ear of any great leaders. I wish only for America to rediscover its drive, its ambition, its imagination. I want us to paint murals in city buildings. I want us to fly to the moon, or Mars, or even Venus. I want our focus to leave the now, leave ourselves, and create something for the future.

Perhaps I am challenged by this because of some simple dates--I was born ten years after the first moon landing, and my son was born forty years after that historical event. What have we done since? Disco? MTV? The iPod?

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Well written rant!

While I would quibble with your idea that the WPA was a better use of money than cash for clunkers. It was a huge political boondoggle designed produce a class of workers beholden to the government and guaranteed to vote for the democratic party bosses. Most of the WPA projects were little more than make work and many "bridges to nowhere". It is only those projects that had real merit somehow uncorrupted by the giant bureaucracy funding them that we have preserved in the present.

I enjoyed reading your posts and love pictures of "The Swath".