Of Space and Men

If a future historian wanted to find the intersection of America's apogee and the start of her decline, he could do no better than spend forty minutes watching this NBC video about Apollo 13.

The program was produced on the fortieth anniversary of the famous rescue of the moon shot gone wrong.  In it, NBC's Matt Lauer interviews the leading surviving players in the drama.  Mission Commander Jim Lovell, crewmember Fred Haise, Lead Mission Controller Gene Kranz, and Marilyn Lovell contribute their recollections of events that were as remarkable a human story as the Apollo Program was a remarkable human achievement.

The images accompanying the story are powerful testimony to what Americans capable of such a feat looked and smelled like.  We were different people then.  Lovell, Haise, and the since deceased Jack Swigert made up the crew.  All were test pilots.  All had military experience, and each logged thousands of flight hours.  Kranz was an F-86 pilot-turned-NASA manager.  These men lived on the edge.  As Kranz puts it, "we were working on the ragged edge of all knowledge, all technology, and all experience."

In short, they did what men have always done.  Marilyn Lovell, heroic in her own right, did what the women of such men always did.  Her widow's watch was more up-to-date, but the demands she faced were as ruthlessly indifferent to her and every bit as rigorous as any faced by other great women in history.

These are people who understand reality in flesh-and-blood terms.  They understood the risk, and while they knew how to mitigate it, they all acknowledged the ultimate consequence.  When faced with danger, each responded with courage, discipline, and strength.  It's no stretch to say they are among the finest that America has ever produced.  Each came of age well before the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

The near-disaster of Apollo 13 happened at the crossroads of two generations.  The postwar generation, characterized by daring exploration and engineering excellence, was waning before its prime.  The lifelong tantrum of the baby boom was just beginning to shout it down.  Achievement was out; cool was in.  Engineers offer little solace to the self-indulgent.  The era of the enabling lawyer was ascendant.

During the interviews, Lauer's questions, attitude, and comments betray him as a boomer.  He carries a friendly yet skeptical air as he asks each man about his role.  While these men understood physical reality by education and relied on their professional training to face its threats to personal safety, Lauer is a dropout who later was awarded his college degree for participation.  As with many of us boomers, Lauer mastered the art of facing better men with mindless ridicule.

Even still, among men, Lauer remains lost in an alien culture -- one that reveals his own inadequacies.  At one point, he asks Lovell if his response to the situation was "just test pilot bravado."  Ever the gentleman, Lovell graciously reminds Lauer of the obvious:  that, trapped in a spacecraft hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth, had he bounced off the walls in panic when he was finished, he would still have had his problems staring him in the face.

The idea of someone capable of sidlining his emotions seems foreign to Lauer.  He is far more at ease talking with Marilyn Lovell, where his feminized preoccupation with feelings and fears finds natural resonance.

This contrast of generational cultures reflects the general fate of American manhood.  Something similar was afoot at NASA.

There was one reality the Apollo Program could overlook.  With the mandate of a martyred president, cost was a background matter.  Nonetheless, getting man to the moon took $25 billion in 1969 dollars.  That's close to half a trillion today.

With its moon mission accomplished, if NASA was to achieve the eternal life that Ronald Reagan identified, space travel needed to be cheaper.  The answer appeared to be a reusable orbiter.  The space shuttle promised, but it failed to deliver.  Over its 30-year life, 135 missions have cost over $200 billion, two orbiters, and fourteen astronaut lives.

The shuttle program reflected a shift in NASA's culture.  Engineering-on-the-edge gave way to bean-counting.  The shuttle program made economic sense only if it was a frequent flyer, so NASA sold it to Congress on the basis of 53 flights a year.  That was a fiction no one believed, yet the program went ahead anyway.

NASA also needed to accommodate the egalitarian demands of raging boomers, so making the crews look like America was a priority.  While that wasn't harmful in itself, it did expose people to the dangers of a highly experimental operation masquerading as routine travel.

It was the lie of high-frequency flights that created the pressures that led to disaster.  For example, after Challenger, we learned that NASA repeatedly flew the shuttle despite knowing of prior failures of the systems that ultimately caused her loss.  The bureaucracy lost respect for the forces and lives it was playing with.

NASA was an organization that lost its focus.

NASA's decline is an apt metaphor for America.  Since the beginning of the space program in the late '50s, we've gone from a nation that honored responsible, capable men to a nation of quivering butt-coverers.  We've abandoned virile courage and optimism.  Far too many of us have regressed into superstitious sheep, huddled together, helplessly waiting for the next wave of panic.

Ever ready to please, the organization that inspired us by taking us to the moon now panders to our fears and superstitions.  Just last September, the world missed the calamity of an ice-free Arctic Ocean that NASA feverishly forecast in 2007.  Despite the debunking of anthropogenic global warming, NASA's climate change medicine show rattles on.  Whatever became of NASA's breathless reports of water and life on Mars back in 2000?

We no longer demand that our leaders be exceptional, virtuous people.  Instead, we seek comfort from banal slicksters whose chief skills are blaming others and sending better people to their deaths.  Like Lauer, we've all mastered the cheap tricks to dismiss manly virtue.  As a result, we've managed to dismiss virtue from our public life altogether.

No civilization can survive a sustained attack on its men and their manhood.  Yet this simple, obvious fact has yet to enter our pretty little heads.  In a very short time, we've fallen from historic achievement to leading from behind, and a growing majority doesn't seem to care.

Our problems extend far beyond the voting booth.  Virtue and virility share a common root:  the Latin word for man.  If America is to avoid the fate of Challenger, she must regain her respect for her men and their manhood.

This past summer, one of the America's elders touched a nerve.  Even more than his memorable prop, the person of Clint Eastwood spoke eloquently of this aching void in America's soul.

While we may be stuck with one empty chair, there are millions of others.  It's time to stand up and walk away from them no matter where we find them.