Nobody bothers to interrupt Days of Our Lives for the launching of a space shuttle, and the ongoing problems with the Russian space station Mir draw something less than twenty-four-hour live coverage, which suggests that people younger than I (which is about 60 percent of the human race, last I looked) might well be surprised to hear that space exploration used to be a Big Deal.

Of course, this was when the Russians weren't nebulous almost-but-not-quite allies; this was when the Evil Soviet Empire, while we weren't looking, managed to shoot something called Sputnik out past the atmosphere. Mandatory Fifties jingoism demanded that we do something, and we did, and what's more we kept doing it, all through the Sixties, culminating on a July day in 1969 when the Apollo 11 astronauts took that giant leap for all mankind, or at least that part of mankind which swore fealty to the American dream.

But it couldn't last. More and more ventures into space met with less and less enthusiasm, and by the end of the Eighties, with the space shuttle Challenger in pieces offshore and the Soviet Union suddenly just a cross-reference in a history text, no one out here in the Big PX seemed to care about getting off this plain granite planet anymore.

So I was hopeful that the stunning success of our current automated mission to Mars might bring a little attention back to the task of finding our place in the galaxy. And for a while, for a couple of days, maybe, it did exactly that. But once again, it won't last, and next week if you ask Joe and Jennifer Sixpack about outer space, odds are they won't mention the desolate landscape of Mars — they'll mention the desolate landscape of Roswell, New Mexico. Apparently the only thing the American public likes better than bad science fiction as fiction is bad science fiction as public policy. Who needs Sagan and Asimov when you have Scully and Mulder? If NASA wants to get any attention paid to their next mission to Mars, they'll have to strap O. J. Simpson to the lander.

The Vent

#61
16 July 1997

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