September 22, 2003
I have just returned from the 61st World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto, Canada -- almost a week of panels, discussions, keynote addresses, book signings, industry awards for excellence, and other things too numerous to list. Four thousand people -- writers, artists, publishing professionals, fans -- crowded the halls of two major metropolitan hotels and a large convention center. Four thousand people who sing about, write about, dream about the stars and the shining path they have always illuminated for our kind.
Barely a week after my return, I came across an article about NASA's Jupiter probe, 'Galileo' ("What Galileo Saw," The New Yorker, September 8, 2003). Much of this was not news to me -- I was one of those four thousand people at the Worldcon, I have shared the dream of the stars since the moment I first raised a wondering child's eyes and beheld them. I don't always understand them, and when I do understand them it has usually been with a caveat that the Universe is a deeply weird, utterly wonderful place which is nevertheless totally inimical to the human race 99.98% of the time (and we still haven't found that 0.02%, and may never do so). But reading this article made my heart hurt.
I knew of the discovery of the possibility of liquid oceans on Jupiter's moon Europa. I knew of the breathless possibility that there may, just may, even be traces of life in those oceans. What I did not know, and this struck me an almost physical blow, was that plans for an orbiter that would investigate these oceans more closely were cancelled in 2002, "owing to budget cuts."
We've been here before, somehow. I was tragically too young to remember watching the Moon landing as it happened, but there are still people out there who very much do -- who recall the wonder of it, the way the stars suddenly seemed within reach. I did see video clips of that footage, many times, in the intervening years. I heard Neil Armstrong utter his immortal words many, many times. I have seen pictures, read stories, practically stood in the dust together with the astronauts whose footprints still remain on our Moon's desolate landscape. But it is so inconceivable that we could have done this -- gone out into the void, conquered airless vacuum and incredible distances and sundry other risks and perils we had no way of even knowing about until we encountered them -- only to turn our backs on it all in almost the next breath, that I almost understand the faction which has started to quite seriously proclaim (and believe) that there was never a Moon landing at all and that the entire evidence of the event consists of clever photomontage. It's almost possible to believe this because the alternative is to believe that the human race has suffered such a colossal collective loss of heart and of vision.
What price a dream?
In the aftermath of Columbia's fiery death in the skies of Texas in February 2003, there have been some discussions about NASA's needing to brush up on its public image. The organization's image is badly tarnished, its public face apparently consisting of little more than politically correct talking heads, bean counters, people it is permissible to trot out in bow ties or pearl necklaces at Presidential cocktail parties, and spin doctors. Its budgetary failures are almost legendary, second perhaps only to those of the Pentagon and its fabled thousand-dollar toilet seats and screwdrivers. But budget cuts are constant, and pervasive, and somehow always hit the dream where it hurts.
NASA's shuttle fleet is ageing and the shuttles are quite possibly nearing the end of their useful lives. Columbia was the first, the fledgling, the flagship; I still remember crying my eyes out as that first shuttle came back to Earth for the first time, and the tremor in the voice of the TV anchor covering the event, a tremor he could not quite control -- "Welcome home, Columbia." It is this that I was thinking of when I saw her die, it is those words that I kept remembering as I watched the first and the oldest of the shuttle fleet disintegrate into shining fragments and shoot across the sky like a brilliant meteor shower. My heart was full -- both at her first flight, and at her last; I wept at both, for very different and yet very similar reasons. Plenty of words were written in the aftermath of Columbia's death, with investigations and justifications and rationalizations on what had happened and why. Somewhere in that morass of words a report was buried which stated that NASA needed to pull itself together and reignite its public image if it wanted to survive as a financial and constructive entity. There was still a shining fragment of the dream out there -- the space station still being built -- and it needed salvaging, fast. The implications were that the common man was losing interest in space, or in our potential place in it.
But this is just not true.
Four thousand people at Worldcon know this is not true.
The people losing interest in the stars are the people whose own interests lie much closer to the soil of our own planet, and that only so far as it's exploitable for profit. If there's an oil well to be drilled (even if it's in one of the last bits of pristine wildernesses left on the Earth), if there's a war to be fought, if there's a company chairman who's retiring and needs to be sent off in the style to which he has become accustomed, then that's where the money is going to go. Who's asking the people any more? Why are the only ones who still cherish the dream those who make it live in our imaginations? Where was NASA with a captive audience of four thousand people -- I know it's chickenfeed when it comes to the price of a single booster rocket, but if there had been a collection bucket asking for just a dollar from every attendee at Worldcon I would be willing to guarantee that many would have put in twenty dollars, just to see us touch those cold heavens again.
Just to see life breathed again into the wondrous, awe-inspiring project of finding out if there is in fact life other than ourselves in those potential oceans out on Europa.
Cancelled, because of budget cuts.
It beggars the imagination.
The Five Questions — And An Answer - A Poem by Alma A. Hromic
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Alma Hromic on Swans (with bio).
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