Loss. That’s what I felt when I watched the space shuttle land at LAX, carried to our City of Angels on the back of a close relative, the mighty Boeing 747 – twelve years older than the shuttle and, though aging, nearly as inspiring when you happen to see one. I recalled where I was when Challenger exploded – studying in a library for the California bar exam – and when Columbia burned up on re-entry – at a cottage in Idyllwild with my family. But I’m talking about a different kind of loss.
When I was a kid, growing up in the Sixties, America seemed to be the land of limitless possibilities. President Kennedy launched the space program in 1961, promising we would reach the Moon by the end of the decade and though incredible, no one doubted the USA would do it. In the more distant future described by Gene Roddenberry, a “replicator” would eliminate want of food or material possessions and humans would be freed to explore any part of the universe they chose.
Sure, there were serious problems right here on Earth, and in this country, but the War on Poverty, the civil rights movement and a bipartisan roster of widely respected – even revered – public officials seemed determined to get these matters in hand. We were working on them, and nothing seemed intractable. The cynical snicker about the Sixties now. But such was the energy and enthusiasm of the economic prosperity of post World War II United States, an era that is already gauzy like our refracted impressions of ancient Rome.
Just after three in the afternoon on July 20, 1969, my friends and I gathered around the clunky RCA television in our den, understanding that the rest of the planet was doing the same. I was seventeen. Like all kids who grew up in the era before cable TV, video games and the Internet, we had spent many late nights outdoors contemplating the Moon, which seemed to us as distant as adulthood. Now we could barely discern the astronauts in the grainy black and white images as they walked on the lunar surface, but there was no mistaking the achievement of that day. And though it was America’s achievement, the whole world celebrated.
A few days from now, shuttle Endeavor will be drawn through the streets of Los Angeles– like a funeral caisson for a fallen soldier – by a magnificent technological beast. That journey, at 2 mph, will end at a museum twenty-four hours later. There it will rest much like the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China, monuments to human will and imagination left to puzzle future generations. No ambitious program to explore the universe will succeed the shuttle.
That’s because there’s no money left to pay for our aspirations. The last decade began with a speculation-induced economic recession in 2001. In California, once the home of aerospace, the collapse of the tech-bubble was compounded by the disastrous results of the deregulation of electricity by local lawmakers, which included a bailout for over-priced nuclear power plants that cost consumer ratepayers $28 billion. Then Enron and other Wall Street firms that bought the power plants covertly manipulated the supply of electricity to jack up prices, bankrupting utility companies and forcing the state to buy long term contracts for electricity from the manipulators – at the grossly inflated prices – to keep the lights on and businesses going. The deregulation debacle cost California $71 billion – and the local economy has never been the same.
Many Americans had not recovered from the 2001 recession when the Wall Street derivatives frenzy collapsed in the Fall of 2008. Americans lost their jobs, their homes, their savings. With incomes disappearing, Americans stopped spending. That hurt businesses, especially small businesses that could not borrow. And tax revenues declined. To pay Social Security and jobless benefits, and restart the economy, the federal government spent more than it took in in recent years.
This ignited the raging political debate over the federal government’s stimulus and deficit spending, though few Americans can claim to have been bailed out the way Wall Street was. After taxpayer cash infusions, subsidies, tax breaks and other favors estimated at between $9.7 trillion and $29 trillion, the Money Industry has emerged not merely intact but more profitable than ever.
Add $1.3 trillion for the Afghan and Iraq wars, and you can see why there won’t be a manned mission to Mars anytime soon, much less hyperdrive tours of the galaxy.
Our country paid a heavy price to save Wall Street. Consider that the cost of the getting to the Moon in today’s dollars would be about $26 billion less than taxpayers spent bailing out the insurance giant AIG – about $182 billion. And the Moon program was a massive stimulus program for America in the Sixties, and not just the defense industry. Its benefits included the research and development of a raft of technologies that led to enormous advance in computer, medicine and other industries – not to mention Velcro. Steve Jobs and his colleagues in Silicon Valley didn’t build the modern personal computer industry by themselves: you, the American taxpayer, helped.
Measuring the cost of government assistance to Wall Street versus to business innovators versus to Americans in need compartmentalizes the debate. What does it say about the country – and its future – that the average life expectancy of white Americans who did not graduate high school has dropped by four years, to where it was in the 1950s to Sixties?
Yet a majority of Americans – 54% –believe that the government should do less to solve our country’s problems… though there is a sharp partisan divide on the question, with 82% of Republicans saying less and 67% of Democrats saying more, according to Gallup.
There will be Americans in space in the near future, however. Using the technology and facilities taxpayers built, a number of private companies are developing plans to commercialize orbital space flight, the New York Times reports. And every American who wants to hitch a ride can do so – for somewhere between $50 million and $150 million a ticket, depending on your destination.
As the 747 and the shuttle swung low over Los Angeles, one of my favorite oldies from the Sixties came to mind:
The road is long, with many a winding turn,
That leads us to who knows where, who knows where.
So on we go. His welfare is of my concern.
No burden is he to bear – we’ll get there.
For I know: he would not encumber me.
He ain’t heavy: he’s my brother.
I thought back to that humid afternoon in July, 1969, when Kennedy’s charge was fulfilled by Apollo 11. JFK was gone; along with his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, struck down by hate, fear, madness. At the time, they seemed to us pioneers in the still young and uncertain cause of Democracy, and had given their lives to better their fellow Americans and the Nation. The sense of purpose, destiny, determination and sacrifice – shared by the nation – was inspiring. At least to a young guy from a Boston suburb.