Fifty years ago today Yuri Gagarin spent just under two hours in space; a short jaunt by most standards, but one likely to earn him a lasting entry in the historical record. Hailed as a hero by half the world while the other half watched in shock, Gagarin's flight was a triumph on par with the Manhattan Project. As a feat of techno-nationalism, however, it didn't stick. In just thirty days the trick had been repeated, and before the decade was up, Gagarin was dead of a freak jet crash, and an American flag stood on the moon. Today there is reason to fear that the project of sending men into space may follow the same trajectory of its first hero.
After three decades of firing men and women into orbit, NASA is due to launch its final shuttle mission on June 28 of this year. The phasing out of the Space Shuttle is part of a larger move away from manned spaceflight. The reasons for this are manifold. First, space travel is dangerous; the story of Yuri Gagarin is not the only Icarus fable of the space age. In 1970 America watched as near disaster befell Apollo 13 on the dark side of the moon. In the years since she has seen two of her shuttles explode in the sky, one carrying a young schoolteacher. Manned trips to Mars and beyond promise to be perilous, expensive, or both. In light of these hazards astrophysicists tell us that robotic probes are our best bet for exploring the cosmos. Besides, it is urged, we have giant telescopes to see beyond where our electronic emissaries may venture. Lurking underneath these considerations is a still more troubling question: Have we been disappointed by space exploration?
If you see the first astronauts as natural descendants of yesterday's explorers, men like Joseph Banks and Amerigo Vespucci, it is easy to understand how our enchantment with adventure may have reached its ceiling with the atmosphere. The exploration of centuries past yielded vast slabs of land for its sponsors. New, fertile continents lay in the bounty, replete with gold, oil and wholly forgotten branches of the human family tree. By comparison, the cool colorless rock of the moon is a meager harvest. Beyond our solar system lie still more barren fields, littered with the monstrous wreckage of theoretical physics. The Hubble telescope, our looking glass to the far Universe, returns images wholly alien to a people just centuries removed from simple gazing at the night sky. Stars bloom and are then ripped apart in the teeth of colossal celestial infernos, all at a distance that defies our ordinary notions of space and time. We don't have the sensory vocabulary to describe what lies beyond this galaxy. Even Stanley Kubrick was reduced to cinematic jibberish when he tried to summon the aesthetics of the deep cosmos. Whatever its many mysteries, the human mind is still an engine that runs on experience. When we voyage, we long to end up on flower-scented shores where we can eat of the local fruit and fall in love with the natives. Look no further than Avatar for a glimpse of our platonic ideal of exploration; the yearning to participate experientially in new worlds. Alas, the pleasures on offer to the live human astronaut may be too abstract to sustain our imaginative largess.
There are other signs that the cosmos have diminished as a source of inspiration in our culture. In popular films space is a menace to humanity; a rich source of alien invasions and asteroid projectiles. The ghosts of Asimov and Sagan, both great evangelists of starstruck wonder, are on the wane. Several able explainers of physics have arisen in their wake, but none have distinguished themselves as romantics of space. Artists, the locus of creative energy in our communities, now cluster tightly in cities where blaring lights drown out the stars. Worse still, while our enchantment with futuristic technologies like the spaceship has flourished, new inventions have arisen to compete for it. Today the gadget is king, and the gadget works the exact opposite magic of the rocket; it zooms the world toward you. Our era's techno-obsessions are directed inward. Prophets promise us a singularity; a rapturous eternal future for the mind, ushered in by earthbound technologies. Life expansion, cognitive enhancement, artificial intelligence, the uploading of the mind; these are the sexy new frontiers of the 21st century. When compared with the swaggering transhumanist, the stiff in the spacesuit is bound to look a little passé. If you ask the average tycoon whether he'd rather live for five hundred years or commit five generations to visiting Alpha Centauri, the response is likely to be laughter.
And too bad, for if these fifty years are to be but a brief whimsy in the story of our species, then history should judge us cruelly; man in the first fresh days of modernity, chased by a great war into the firmament before scurrying back to the muck. To send one of our own out amongst the stars, to pour the great expanse of space through the fleshy colander of our animal consciousness: these are essential tasks in the human pursuit of meaning. Like many astronauts after him, Yuri Gagarin described the experience of looking back at the Earth in terms verging on the mystical. The view from space uniformly dilates the souls of engineers; they emerge from their ships transformed into poets. Indeed, Gagarin riffed in detailed reverie about the contrast between our violet blue oceans and coal black space, all before ending on a telling note of melancholy:
"I could have gone on flying through space forever."
That may well be his elegy. Will it be ours?