I’m going to let you in on a little secret of mine.
I always wanted to be an astronaut.
Of course, every kid wanted to be an astronaut at one time or another, especially if you were a kid at the height of America’s Space Program. The “height” being May 5, 1961, when Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space, to July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. To think that in the span of eight years you could go from a sub-orbital launch to setting foot on another celestial body remains mind-boggling. Remember that in 1969 there were people still alive who knew a world when horse and buggy was the principal mode of transportation, and a time before electricity or telephones, radio or movies or television. The moon went from being what it always had been — that mysterious heavenly body in the night sky — to something man was capable of setting foot upon. No offense to the amazing images currently being transmitted from the surface of Mars, but no human achievement has come close to that moment when Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind.
And now, four decades later, I feel like we as mankind have let Neil down. We could have gone so far, but didn’t. Too expensive, too ambitious — there were too many problems here on earth. The fact we’ve done nothing to actually solve those problems is obfuscated in white noise. We stood on the moon, then we packed up and went back home and never returned.
I was born some years after that date; by the time I became aware of Neil Armstrong. Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, I was probably closer to eight or nine. The age when you start to become more aware of the world around you and aware that Big Things happened before you were born.
In trying to pinpoint exactly when I wanted to become an Astronaut is tough, though I’m guessing it had to do with two movies.
The first was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which my dad took me to see in 1982. Remember this was in the infancy of home video (and yes, we had a Betamax), so if you wanted to see 2001, or Lawrence of Arabia, or Apocalypse Now, or The Bridge on the River Kwai in the manner they were meant to be seen, you waited for events like this. My dad sold me on 2001 as having “spaceships and monkeys”. With my head filled with images of monkeys piloting spaceships, I was excited.
And then the movie started.
And nothing was ever the same.
If you were to ask what the most important movies of my life were (not favorite, but important) 2001 towers above Star Wars, above Raiders of the Lost Ark, above The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, because it was the first time I saw a move and realized movies — and stories — could be about more than just what they were ‘about’. That they could be interpreted, that they could have a different meaning than what was on the surface. That they could have depths. 2001: A Space Odyssey changed everything for me. I started reading hard Sci-Fi – Heinlein, Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley and Clarke. I started reading non-fiction as well, about the Apollo and Gemini Programs.
And then, in 1983 I saw this:
And there was no turning back.
If 2001 opened the door to the mysteries of the universe, The Right Stuff drop-kicked me through. No movie has better captured the romance, the mythmaking, the adventure of the space program as well as it. I could easily name the 7 Mercury Astronauts (from memory: Shephard, Grissom, Glenn, Slayton, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper) within a week of The Right Stuff, and the order in which they flew into space (six of them, save Slayton, grounded for a heart murmur). I could name the capsules they flew — Freedom, Liberty Bell, Friendship, Aurora, Sigma, Faith (again, from memory) — and Dennis Quaid will always be Gordo Cooper, “the best damn pilot anyone’s ever seen”. The Right Stuff is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times I couldn’t give an accurate count of actual times I’ve seen it. Watching it now I still feel 10 years old.
For five years I was space obsessed. I went to Space Camp in Huntsville Alabama twice, I got to tour Kennedy Space Center in Florida (and take photos of Challenger on the launch pad a month before it exploded); if it was about space; real space, not the movie type, I was a captive audience.
When did that obsession end? Probably on entering high school, as it became apparent that my shitty math and science grades would bar me from any industry involving rockets and thrust and G-forces (for the good of humanity, I should add). It also ended because by 1987 I had a new obsession; movies. Movies like 2001, and The Right Stuff. Space still influences and inspires me, only more on the creative end of things. I mentioned Heinlein, Clarke and Huxley earlier – reading and interpreting and trying to figure out what they all meant. The biggest influence was Ray Bradbury, for being a gateway to Stephen King and Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont and Harlan Ellison – but also for Something Wicked This Way Comes, a book I’ve re-read every October since 1985. The Martian Chronicles is a dream project for me. The two big film projects I’m working on can trace their lineage back to Ray Bradbury and Neil Armstrong – both inspired and influenced by what inspired me at age ten.
That’s why the loss of both Ray and Neil this year has struck me particularly hard. For me it’s like losing two of the best teachers I never had. They all shaped my life enormously. They also remind me of how much we’ve lost. No, not lost, but given up on. At the risk of sounding like a burnt-out baby boomer, has there really been any better or more recent example of what humans can accomplish then that moment The Eagle landed? That was 43 years ago – what has come even close since? MTV? It feels like the species peaked in that summer of ’69 and it’s been on a downward trajectory ever since. Someday there won’t be anyone alive left who walked the surface of the moon, which says more about a species in decline than anything else.
Back in 2004 I was fortunate to meet and interview another childhood hero, (and another Ray) Harryhausen. We talked at length about his life and career (and you can find that interview here), but one thing he said stuck with me. Discussing the current state of movies, Ray bemoaned the fact that people were spending too much time “looking into the gutter when they should be looking at the stars.” And he was right – we are looking into the gutter; gutter TV, gutter movies, gutter politics. We’re looking down, not up. Walk any street and you’ll find people out and about, like they always have, only they’re focused on their handheld devices; their iPones and iPads, all while life – real life – is passing them by. Coffee shops boasting WiFi are cluttered with people jacked into cyberspace, when they used to just sit and talk or spin stories. Now you and a friend conversing earns you dirty looks from nearby tables like you’re distracting them from finishing the next Great American Novel that nobody wil read.
I’ve been one of those people too; we all have. But with the passing of Ray Bradbury and now Neil Armstrong, it’s forced me to ask myself whether I risk snuffing out that creative fire lit when I was eight, by focusing on the small inconsequential stuff and missing the bigger picture. An iPad doesn’t inspire you, email doesn’t need to be checked every five minutes, FB and Twitter are distractions at best, and that text message can wait. I can’t count how many times I’ll be out at dinner and see other people – couples, friends – all sitting, all focused on their gadgets while their entrees get cold and their drinks get warm. We’ve become slaves to our technology – technology that wouldn’t exist if not for our efforts to land a man on the moon – now it’s just another distraction in a world full of distractions. Like I said, i was one of those people. And I knew I needed to change that.
It started with small steps; I started leaving the iPod at home. By doing that, I realized how much more connected to the city and the streets I was without the soundtrack and the email notifications when I drifted through a wireless zone. Following that my wife and I agreed a “no phone, no iPod” rule should be in place in our already TV-free bedroom. I realize we’re probably in the minority there (the guy who came to hook up our cable when we moved in was surprised we didn’t want a TV in the bedroom) but it’s our life and we want to live it.
The fact that they have to remind people to turn off their phones at a movie speaks volumes about what’s wrong with us today (not to mention there’s always that one asshole that doesn’t get the message). People live tweet movies and TV shows instead of watching them, then complain that “nothing’s happening”. It’s become more important to comment on what other people are doing than by doing things worth noting. We live in our insular bubble worlds, refusing to consider new ideas or explore new possibilities. We’d rather convince ourselves that we’re right than admit we may be wrong. We wear our ignorance like a badge of honor. Science has become a dirty word to the same people who wonder why we’re slipping, why we can’t do great things like we used to. We’re killing ourselves slowly because we refuse to “switch off”. We’re raising a generation of ADD addled children, and adults are marching on to oblivion with them. And what’s scary is we don;t know what effect technology will have — is having on us. We won’t know for years, and if it turns out to be worse than smoking or drinking, what then? There’ll never be another Neil Armstrong or a moment like July 20, 1969 – not unless we stop looking into the gutter and start looking to the stars.
Years ago, James Cameron took the editorial rains of Wired magazine, and in an editorial wrote something that I’ve never forgotten:
Everybody talks about the cost of going to space; but what about the cost of not going? Where would [we] be if the space race of the ’60s had not happened? What if we hadn’t been forced to come up with more-powerful computing to calculate trajectories on the fly while guys were on the far side of the moon in titanium cans? Where will we be in 20 years if we don’t do something that captures the public imagination and inspires kids to give a damn about science and engineering again? What if we become Rome, blinded by the image of our own superiority while other younger, more vigorous cultures supplant us?
Those words were written in 2004, and eight short years later we have become Rome. It’s burning too, and we’re all too busy fiddling with our iPads to notice the smell.