"We Could've Had the Moon" (July 13, 2011)

I do not normally choose to appropriate images when I can draw instead, but once I’d searched for photo references of Afghanistan and the Moon the similarity between them was too hilarious not to use actual photos. You would only have assumed that my drawings were unfair exaggerations.

Last week the cover article in The Economist was “The End of the Space Age.” Regular readers of The Pain know that the author is a serious weenie when it comes to space exploration, and the last flight of the U.S. shuttle program, currently in progress, saddens me. Not that I was ever all that excited about the shuttle, except for the time when I personally saw a launch, but after this one lands, for the first time since the fifties, America will be without a manned space program. We’ll now be hitching rides with the Russians to the space station, a more humiliating situation than which is hard to envision. By dispiriting coincidence, we're approaching July 20th, the 42nd anniversary of the moon landing. It now looks like 1969 may have been the high water mark of America as a scientific and technological power.

I was talking about this depressing turn of events last Friday at a somewhat misnamed happy hour with my friend Ellen, who just about slumped forward to the point where her forehead was touching the icy rim of her martini glass, so demoralized was she over the prospect of the end of America’s space program, with all it symbolized—the ebbing of American optimism and enterprise, our supremacy in science and technology, the inexorable decline of the country. “And all because we couldn’t get our shit together to tax rich people and quit fighting expensive wars,” she said. Which gave me the idea for this cartoon.

I know a lot of people will raise the objection that the space program is a pretty frivolous and costly enterprise; shouldn’t we be spending that money on health care/education/poverty, etc.? To these well-meaning people, who do make a valid point, I would respectfully submit that you please go take a flying leap off a low-gravity planetoid. We weren’t ever going to spend that money on health care/education/poverty, etc. because no one in power in this country actually cares about those things. And as long as we’re not going to spend it on that stuff, why not spend it on science? So what if manned space exploration is frivolous? It’s harmless and beautiful and inspiring. It contributes to human knowledge and elevates our estimation of our own species. At least it’s not lethal. The Department of Defense, on which we blow a fifth of our Federal budget, is a gigantic and inefficient engine designed to kill people. So how come we always hear this argument made against the space program instead of the military? It’s like picking a fight with the class geek instead of the class bully. As my instructive chart shows, we’ve blown like three times more accomplishing it’s not clear exactly what in Afghanistan than we spent putting men on the Moon. I am not even counting Iraq, for the cost of which we could probably build a floating pleasure-dome on Io. So how about knock it off with the why-are-we-spending-this-money-on-space horseshit already and do something useful with your pipsqueak pious outrage instead?

So this is the future we’ve chosen: instead of colonies on the Moon or Mars, sandbag bunkers in Afghanistan and concrete fortifications in Iraq. Instead of soaring upward and outward, we’re hunkering down with ammo. The new generation of consumer toys that mostly just lets us pursue the same tawdry old primate pastimes of bragging, gossip and getting off are pretty chintzy consolations for the promise of new worlds reneged on. So okay, we can find out whether that old PSA about lead poison that gave us nightmares as kids is on YouTube yet, or get back in touch with our middle school crushes on Facebook. That’s cool, I guess. But we could have walked on Mars.

I do think human beings will go back to space--if not our civilization, then the next one, after another thousand-year interregnum or so. When they get to the Sea of Tranquility, they’ll find a curious artifact there--a plastic dime-store flag mounted on a telescoping pole. Not far away there's a plaque. Who knows whether they'll even be able to read the language inscribed on it: We Came in Peace for All Mankind.


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