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Divine Vessel, Tabloid Nation

Now the threat comes from a rising superpower that wants, economically and scientifically, to become us.

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I suspect that, as a nation, we pay a lot more attention to J Lo than Shenzhou. OK, Jennifer Lopez is much easier on the eyes than a tall, pointy Chinese rocket. Still, where we place our national gaze reveals a national problem, and it’s not a new one. The tabloid saga of the Kobe Bryant case, not the adventure of Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei, was front and center on CNN’s Web page on the day of the Shenzhou V launch. It was worse at Fox “news”: The Web site did feature — in tiny type — a front-page note about Shenzhou, but Kobe Bryant was still top dog. Even a story about the declining popularity of women’s thongs got bigger type. Now there is a national crisis.

NASA claims aside, manned space flight is mostly about national prestige. That was behind JFK’s famous, and famously simple, formula: man-moon-decade. These types of space adventures are not the only, or even the most important, measure of a nation’s greatness. Such missions, do, however, indicate what I like to call “reach”: the ability to dream big, to make long-term plans. When we consider the decade that took Americans to the moon, we see other big dreams, ranging from the doomed Great Society initiative, to the birth of the modern environmental movement, to the still-deferred dream of Martin Luther King Jr. All were noble, indicative of a nation with reach, and all were worth dreaming. Today all that seems at odds with a national temperament that could be summed up as “make me safe, give me what I deserve while cutting my taxes; I’m too busy to pay attention.”

It’s a sentiment very different from the days when, as a kid, I watched Project Gemini rockets climb the ladder to orbit, Project Apollo surge on to the moon. At spacedaily.com, a media outlet that covers space travel in detail, my generation has been labeled “The Children of Apollo.” We are really orphans, sold the visions of the mid-to late 1960s: of astronauts exploring Mars in the 1980s, of humanity beginning a slow but inevitable colonization of our solar system. Such dreams die hard. After President Nixon canceled the last three Apollo missions, I stood in the building once called the Richmond Mosque, waiting to shake hands with Gene Cernan — Apollo 17 commander, last man on the moon. I would never have guessed that 30 years later, we’d still venture no farther than into low orbit. As I write this, we cannot even do that until we fix our three remaining shuttles, themselves 30-year-old technology needing costly replacement.

My best lessons as a Child of Apollo have come from foreigners who smile at our nation’s adolescent energy and, to them, dubious future. One British friend, a devotee of railways, told me how he had studied the engineering marvels of the British railway builders, but added “We English would never do things like that today; you won’t one hundred years from now, either.” When I reminded him of the Channel Tunnel, he still shook his head. “It’s not just the engineering, it’s the willingness to think expansively, to take big steps as a society.” The words reminded me of Neil Armstrong’s, spoken when we made our last giant leap, as a race and in the space race, in 1969. Today, I wonder what Chinese astronauts will say, in a decade or so, when they step onto another world. With our federal deficit running $600 billion this year, and with our national prestige bogged down in Iraq, I doubt we’ll be racing China back to the moon and beyond.

So I wish Yang Liwei and the Shenzhou program good luck and Godspeed. Now if I could only devise an easy formula like Kennedy’s to give us a big reach again. But this is not the early 1960s; I must appeal to what interests Americans today. Perhaps, within the next decade, we could send Jennifer Lopez (in a thong) and Ben Affleck to the moon, where they could work out their problems during a reality show. That might make us look above the horizon again. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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