I see in a headline today that NASA might be in trouble: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20077757-503544.html The need (as well as the political urge, more on that below) to slash the federal budget comes just as the last shuttle flies. As we question where to spend money, NASA does not have a program to capture our eyes on the nightly news (launch, images from flight, phone call from the shuttle, space walk, return all kept NASA both on newscasts and added up to new IMAX films shortly after). We will still aim for Mars, and send various machines off into space, but the Mars mission is decades away and a few images from very far away don’t excite the public. The same subset of people who download Hubble images will be thrilled to see whatever NASA offers next. NASA does not have sizzle. How did that happen?
When Marina did her guest blog here she wrote about the school assignments she did back in the 70s. Then, reading about Apollo was the biggest thrill. Every school child had some assignment to learn about what we were doing in space. Yes those were manned missions, yes we were going to the Moon, but there was something else. As a society we found science, space, exploration, interesting. Now we have turned inward and to the immediate. We tweet and blog about the latest sex scandal, about the summer’s big trial, so-called journalists hack into phone voice mails to get even more gossip, secrets, and tidbits to share. We are fighting two wars, but only very rarely does the general public read about the weapons and strategies of those wars. I am sure there are plenty of military sites filled with info, but that is one more niche, and one more reason the rest of us don’t have to care. We split up the world into separate interest groups, and then leave the mass, the center, to gossip.
Of course human beings have always loved gossip, juicy tidbits. But I do see something alarming in how we as a society have turned away from thrill of space, science, machinery, invention — and focused so heavily on desires and distractions. And that reminds me of a fascinating blog that came out yesterday: a close analysis of the last election showed that there was not a surge of conservative or tea party votes. No, there was a surge of motivation to vote by that block matched by greater voter apathy in the middle and left: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/why-the-g-o-p-cannot-compromise/ In other words, it was not that many more Americans turned right, it was that more Americans of the center and left just did not vote.
See the patterns — we split up into interests, those who are passionate assert, others fade, the minority speaks as the majority, gossip rules, and NASA is threatened. Instead of being a society focused on creating a thrilling future, we focus on present distraction and our ever more tightly-knit groups of Facebook Friends. And to return to this blog — it is nonfiction, books about space, exploration, science, math, ideas, heroes and villains of the past that can and should lift young people out of the blur of tweets to see larger horizons. We have to believe in the world beyond ourselves — and that is where nonfiction can take us.