The End of Optimism

I used to think that the memory of the past was pure fancy. I had no patience for the idealized 1950’s world of October Sky, the small American towns with the boys who carried their schoolbooks in a leather strap, the confinement of women to happy submission. It has always seemed to me that we idealize bygone eras because we never really had to live in them.

Yet there is one piece of that past world that still seems authentic: optimism itself.

The Atlantic just published Charles Fishman’s glorious “5,200 days in space,” which points out how far we have come since the West Virginia boys in October Sky saw Sputnik and dreamed of building rockets. We know so much more about the universe we are in. We are readying ourselves to go to Mars. And yet, for all this, we approach the outer reaches of space with so much less wonder than the newspapers did in 1969. Fishman writes:

It’s a little strange when you think about it: Just about every American ninth-grader has never lived a moment without astronauts soaring overhead, living in space. But chances are, most ninth-graders don’t know the name of a single active astronaut—many don’t even know that Americans are up there. We’ve got a permanent space colony, inaugurated a year before the setting of the iconic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a stunning achievement, and it’s completely ignored.

Perhaps I am being fanciful myself; after all, I live in a bubble, too. In my world, there is much hand-wringing over the state of the planet and the intractability of wars and the overwhelming sadness of a species plagued by self-contempt. I believe that we must do our part to mitigate climate change and inequality and all manner of human suffering, but I am also tired of hearing the cynic’s voice in my head.

What took us to the moon was not fear or disappointment or even politics. What provided the will, the imagination, and the desire to make such a costly thing possible was a combination of forces far greater than these: curiosity and delight.

I wonder, in how many other areas of society, we could cast off our fatigue with the catalogue of problems and simply go with open minds in search of greater wonders.


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