Senator Astronaut Colonel John Glenn died today at the age of ninety five. That sentence is not so much “life goals” as what a comic book prints to show you how awesome the guy who just dies was. Add in the parts about “surrounded by his loving family, including his wife of 73 years”, and it gets so tacky no self-respecting comic book writer would write it (well, maybe Rob Liefeld).
Despite being a classically nerdy mathematician, I’ve never really been into the whole space thing 1 . I don’t believe in settling faraway planets or spreading across the galaxy. I think the reason for the Fermi paradox is that it’s practically impossible to spread your civilization, or even information, across the galaxy. Tim Urban’s Elon Musk series managed to convince me that it just might be possible, in a few centuries, to establish a permanent Mars colony. It certainly seems impossible to travel beyond the solar system, even assuming Hard-SF levels of technology.
But recently, I’ve started thinking what it was like back in the sixties. When we were just experimenting with rockets, and anything seemed possible. Most of this chapter really happened, and remembering those people, sitting in a tin can going around the moon for the first time and reading the book of Genesis while the whole world watched… it means something.
We don’t have that anymore. I don’t think we can. Economic productivity is shrinking, spaceflight is approaching the limits of the possible, and it doesn’t seem to be because of anything like a bad government policy. It’s because we’ve run out of things to do. Trump ran on a platform of making America great again. He didn’t really have any specifics, and couldn’t, because we’ve run out of achievable things to strive for. We’ve reached the moon already. And we’ll never get to Alpha Centauri.
So today, let’s remember John Glenn. I’ve seen him called the last real American hero. This seems true. Not because we have no heroic men left, but because we have no more goals for them to conquer.
But when we did, it was pretty great.
Except for the time when I was six when we went to the national air and space museum, and my dad got me a model of the Saturn V rocket. I managed to break the antenna-thingy off before we even got home, after which the rest of the rocket survived undamaged on my desk for the next fifteen years.