Glastonbury, Somerset, U.K. - Concurrent with the release of the long-awaited sci-fi blockbuster The X-Files we are on family holiday in Glastonbury, a few hours west of London. Besides being one of the quaintest and most eccentric old towns in the English countryside, Glastonbury has, for more than a millennium, been a destination for pilgrims questing to understand "what is out there," or more specifically, how humans connect with the universe.
My Britannic sojourn began with a Farnborough Air Show schedule of meetings, conferences, and events in London with leaders of American and European space exploration enterprises. But today we trod cobblestone footpaths where Paleolithic people built labyrinths, conical earthen pyramids, and stone circles, which, like the famous nearby Stonehenge and Avebury sites, perfectly align with the major events of our solar system. Even 6,000 years ago these were apparent to the naked eye - if only one looked up.
It is this "looking up" that concerns me, for it seems to have faded into the distant background of the American political process and social experience. In an election where "hope" has become a byword, the most fundamental and enduring hope of all - the one that stirs the human heart when our minds reach for the stars - has seldom been articulated, at least until this past Saturday, when Sen. Barack Obama spoke passionately and with firm commitment for continuing this nation's journey into space.
Imagine the collective political and social will it must have taken thousands of years ago for a society equipped with little more than sticks and stones to quarry 20-ton rocks in Wales, move them to the Salisbury plain, and erect an astronomical facility.
There has been much speculation but little evidence to explain what, if any, spiritual or religious purposes were served by the great stone circles and avenues. What has been established is that many of these structures were built and aligned in such a way that they could function as astronomy instruments. It is not a stretch to imagine that your average Paleolithic person may have known more about the movements of the sun and the moon than does today's average "well-educated" citizen voter or politician.
Certainly for these people, issues of daily survival in a hunter-gatherer society would have been extremely pressing. Life was short and challenging. Nonetheless, to stone-age society, the fundamental mysteries of the stars were important enough to undertake epic, generational engineering challenges. In today's great societies, daily survival is not much an issue - we order our lives from the drive-through. Maybe it is because life has become so easy that we can only "look up" from our espresso long enough to manage a bare minimum of political will to study and explore this vast universe.
It's a pity, really, because it does not bode well for the survival of our species. If you laid out the 13+ billion year life-line of our universe along a 100-meter measuring stick, the existence of homo sapiens can be represented by the width of a single human hair. New York's Hayden Planetarium has constructed exactly such a model time line, and it is humbling to say the least.
We know that cosmic collisions have wiped out major life forms on Earth in the past, and absent our intervention will likely do so again in the future. Knowing the universe and being experienced and comfortable operating away from the home planet would seem fundamental to such a world-saving intervention. As life forms go, I think agent Mulder's little green friends would judge us an unintelligent species - with all our existential eggs in one planetary basket and, despite our evolved technology, very little evolved research, development, or exploration under way that might enable us to protect the planet or build new cradles of human civilization elsewhere. Incredibly, we seem hell-bent on quite the opposite: wreaking all kinds of environmental havoc and generally making mayhem in the single nest we do have.
Perhaps the search for intelligent life in the universe needs to begin with a good, long look in a mirror.
It is sometimes lamented the youth of today, our presumptive leaders of tomorrow, have "checked out" of society. They live in a virtual world of cyber friendships where coarse and meaningless text messaging has displaced interpersonal communication and consequential social discourse; where Facebook and MySpace make anonymous and meaningless the functions once served by friendships, neighborhoods, clubs, teams, alliances, treaties, trading, travel, and actual engagement in society. I am not so sure. I think these things rather shift the paradigm from local social units to more global and international ones, which is surely a good thing.
But if indeed the Millennial generation has checked out, who can blame them? Where is the hope that we, as a society, will look up again? Since the first salvos of Operation Desert Storm, we have been at war 18 years - a Millennial's entire lifetime. Our sense of national purpose seems incurably gridlocked precisely down political party lines that ensure malaise and inertia. There is no urgent, exciting, thrilling, daring, visionary program like Apollo in place or envisioned to engage our best and brightest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Indeed, this is where candidate Obama's education platform is missing a couple of planks. Credit the man and his advisors for recognizing the crisis in education. But subtract points for not understanding that as long as there is no great American space exploration enterprise, few will be inspired to get advanced degrees in aeronautics, astronautics, propulsion, fluid dynamics, engineering - fields where our global leadership (built upon investments made 40 and 50 years ago) is whittled away daily and jobs are being rapidly shipped overseas.
A space enterprise (NASA) that receives less than six-tenths of one percent of the federal budget is barely a space enterprise at all. Where, Senator Obama, is the hope, the "Yes, we can!" in that? Where, Senator McCain, is the "Experience you can trust" in such tokenism?
Today we will visit St. Michael's tower, all that remains of a Gothic abbey built atop the Glastonbury Tor, a high hill overlooking this magnificent countryside. Like all abbey and cathedral towers, this one symbolizes our reach toward the heavens. Despite plagues and pestilence, poverty and famine, religious wars that wracked the countryside, and undoubtedly a few wagging tongues suggesting the money and effort could be better spent elsewhere, the abbey was built, and the tower remains. And for centuries Britain continued to be a nation of builders and explorers - its science and its ships of exploration and commerce eventually shaping a world where, literally, the sun never set on the British Empire.
Yet at some point, our friends and forebears here in the U.K. turned inward. I suspect it happened slowly, just as the NASA budget has been slowly, inexorably declining in real terms since Gene Cernan and the Apollo 17 crew left the moon. The empire began to contract upon itself like a collapsing star. Today, while Britons still proudly sing "Rule Britannia" in public, in private they explain the absence of a British space agency or even space policy with (and I heard this quote numerous times) "well, we are, after all, a small country."
The America I grew up in could not imagine adopting such a recessive attitude. The America I grew up in offered more opportunity, not less. It was a place where Abraham Lincoln had called for the building of a transcontinental railroad without ever having seen a train because he foresaw the prosperity such boldness could bring. Where John F. Kennedy could challenge us to go to the moon, at a time when the means to get there had not been invented, because he foresaw the political, social, technical, and national security benefits such boldness could bring.
Many people today suggest, and present evidence, that for the first time since the Great Depression we are at real risk of leaving our children a nation that is poorer, and holds fewer opportunities than the nation our parents and grandparents left us. I prefer to see opportunity.
The amazing discoveries we have painstakingly eked out of our under-funded space program should provide the impetus for a massive new (and yes, international) space exploration enterprise. The conditions for life on Mars! Water apparently common throughout our solar system! Hundreds of Earth-like planets in "goldilocks" orbits of other stars! We should be inventing and building and launching and GOING TO EXPLORE - giving full expression to our "looking up" genetic programming with a purpose and commitment that would dwarf the resolve of the builders of Stonehenge and amplify a thousand-fold the impact of the British Admiralty.
If, as agent Mulder would say, "the truth is out there," then I believe the truth is this: our place in the universe is not just something for us to discover, it is something for us to make.
The View from Here is that we should make our own future, and make it boldly. It should be the right of every American generation to become "The Greatest Generation." And to never have to apologize that we have neither the purse, nor the will, to make it so.
This article is part of Space Watch: August 2008 (Volume: 7, Issue: 8).