Crash Course

In mid-July, fragments of a fearsome comet are scheduled to blast into Jupiter -- just as the U.S. gets set to commemorate the silver anniversary of man's first steps on the moon. What are we doing watching it all from down here?

By From the July 1994 issue

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"IT WAS AT ROME, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind." Just as Gibbon never accepted Christ's usurpation of Jupiter's position, remaining in love with all that had declined and fallen, there will be many looking up at the god's planet this July and thinking about how much more lofty and exciting and willful their own heavenly gazing was a quarter-century before. The crash of Shoemaker-Levy coincides exactly with the twenty-fifth anniversary of Apollo XI's voyage, and while the comet's enthusiasts can talk as much as they like about its causing "the largest planetary impact ever witnessed by humanity," that won't change the minds of those who recall a single night in 1969.

"Celestial mechanics" once more means what it used to -- the study of the movement of heavenly bodies -- but for a brief period, still in living memory, it meant men in their flying machines. When the collision occurs this summer, the insult will be not to Jupiter, but to ourselves. Five astronomical units from the sonic boom that no one will hear, we shall be gaping at an event over which we have not the slightest influence. When the Eagle landed safely, it was because Neil Armstrong had just steered his ship away from some rocks it would have foundered upon. (CAPCOM: "Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again.") Even Voyager 2, with no one aboard, survived its post-launch problems and Jupiter's radiation belts because of remote-control human interventions. This July, some may marvel, but no one will turn blue, and there will be nothing to bring home from the event, no more moon rocks to be proffered as diplomatic gifts, as they were twenty-five years ago -- and as Cosimo de Medici II gave duplicates of the telescope through which Galileo discovered Io.

Man goes no more a-roving: it is more than twenty years since he last had his feet governed by another world's gravity. There are, of course, those scientists who say good riddance to his presence in interplanetary space; he was always too clumsy and cost-inefficient and vulnerable an explorer for their taste. The solar system was better left to machines like Voyager, unmanned and indefatigable. "The last twenty-five years have been wonderful," says Dr. Sekanina, as he thinks of their robotic journeys. But even that exploratory era is, he admits, "all over." He laughs when he says this, but one knows what the overstatement means. Each day the big tracking billboard at JPL is updated to show where Galileo and Ulysses are, how far they have traveled from Earth and how long they have to go before reaching Jupiter and the Sun. But what after that? There may yet be a joint venture with the European Space Agency, the Cassini mission to Saturn and one of its moons, and there's talk of a "fast-flyby" mission to Pluto, but Washington's budgetary emphasis, when there's any political interest at all, is always now on better, cheaper, smaller, faster -- and, as nearly as possible, foolproof.

ONE OF THE MANY POSSIBILITIES on Jupiter this July is that the tiniest bits of the Shoemaker-Levy pearls will escape complete destruction and produce a thin ring that keeps orbiting Jupiter. If this happens, they will have met the same fate as the American manned space program, which survives as a round-and-round commuter exercise heading nowhere but home and home again. It is impossible to find any real enthusiasm for the shuttle (or, for that matter, the space station) among those interested in exploration. On this point the manned-space enthusiasts of the Planetary Society express the same basic feelings as the mechanical explorers of JPL. The shuttle, whose approval by Richard Nixon provided the space community with the minimum funding and activity required to continue institutions built up over the previous decade, was, if anything, an "anti-space" decision, says the Society's executive director, Louis D. Friedman. By the time it was launched in 1981, the idea of further manned exploration was essentially dead. "The eighties were terrible," says Friedman. "We didn't go anywhere." The culture moved on to a new self-loathing phase, too embarrassed by its own failures to speak up for the idea of exporting itself to other worlds.

Arthur C. Clarke, in an afterword to the astronauts' official account of their Apollo XI voyage, had predicted longer and longer journeys to more and more places, and the birth of a first human extraterrestrial, before the year 2000. "Anything written about the moon at the beginning of the 1970's," he argued, "will probably look silly in the 1980's, and hilarious in the 1990's." By that time, he was sure a whole human colony would be operating there. Instead, a small collection of manmade junk lies perfectly preserved on the lunar surface, and we stay home, cultivating our own doomed garden and learning to reproduce ourselves in petri dishes. The only serious movement the planet has made, outside its normal heliocentric round, is toward the constellation Virgo, at 425 miles a second, a galactic drift we didn't even realize until recently, when researchers detected a Great Attractor 300 or more million lightyears away that is guiding the Milky Way in its direction.

"Nobody who's in the space business is pessimistic," says Friedman, who in April was trying to excite himself with the news that the Shoemaker fragments might still be as much as four kilometers wide. But to him and the other Planetarians, a real "pro-space" decision, something to cheer about, would be a commitment to go to Mars. A call to do that was actually made five years ago, on the twentieth lunar anniversary, by the Bush administration. The deafness of the ears hearing it was exceeded only by the shamelessness with which the proposal was made, the date for landing -- 2019, the fiftieth anniversary -- picked by John Sununu for reasons that had more to do with speechwriting than science. The "initiative" was an empty, decadent gesture, as divorced from exploration as the moons of Jupiter eventually were, by the Medici, from science and their condemned discoverer. Our own abandoned moon has been reduced to a rhetorical trope for policy debates. "If we can put a man on the moon" goes the subordinate clause of many a domestic-needs cry -- each of which forgets that, today, we can't put a man on the moon.

Back in 1970, as Clarke looked confidently onward and upward, he also prophesied the eventual uselessness of cities, since "one of [their] main functions will cease to exist, when men anywhere on earth can be, in all but physical fact, in each other's presence at the touch of a button." This part of his wish he is getting. Today he lives in Sri Lanka -- still about as far away as anyone can get -- and keeps in touch by E-mail.

THE ONLY THING WORSE than answered prayers are half-answered ones. The achievement of the fiber-optics revolution without any further outward movement of the species has put the world into a self-regarding frenzy. The planet, which twenty-five years ago had begun to resemble a fountain, launching itself in small streams into the void, now looks and sounds like an autistic hive of ever more self-stimulating chatter. Enthusiasts of the information superhighway go on about it with wide-eyed cheer, oblivious to the fact that it leads only back to man's own garage. Typical is a piece by William E. Halal ("The Information Technology Revolution") in the July-August 1992 number of the Futurist. Writing about the "knowledge-based social order" that links all information machines into "one seamless whole," he looks forward to the time, just moments away, when "'computing' will no longer be something one does primarily while sitting at a desk; rather, computers will be ubiquitous. Life will take place in a living landscape of interacting, intelligent machines that help us through our daily chores." One variety of computer chip -- "self-healing" in the manner of Jupiter's surface -- will "police [itself] for errors caused by malfunctioning circuit elements and produce signals that compensate for errors the faulty elements would otherwise cause." Not even machines will ever again need to turn blue. Networks like Prodigy are already fulfilling "what appears to be a large social need" and "electronic universities" (presumably as helpful as educational television turned out to be) are now offering degree programs. Each time a company grabs a piece of the action -- such as last March's announcement that Bill Gates and Craig O. McCaw are forming Teledesic Corporation to "build a $9 billion system with 840 small satellites" -- assurances are sought that the new system will be available on both sides of the tracks, so as not to contribute to a deepening of American class distinctions. No one dares suggest that on a planet already overwired and overpopulated, the best thing to do with the information superhighway might be what we have always done with highways -- run it only through the neighborhoods of the poor.

Vice President Gore extols a "planetary information network" as the "means by which families and friends will transcend the barriers of time and distance," as if these phenomena were inherently anti-human, and as if we weren't actually putting ourselves further in their thrall by making the current chief measure of scientific and cultural progress how quickly and how much we communicate with ourselves. Milton met Galileo long after he had discovered the moons of Jupiter

whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev'ning from the top of Fesole

but he carried back from his visit with the by-then banished astronomer an image of mental liberty and true transcendence, one he would use as he set about justifying the ways of God to man. Science led naturally (if ironically) into theology, toward something higher. The science involved in our own new communications leads inward and down, shrinking men for a kind of Fantastic Voyage through their own circuitry. It is a technology of miniaturization, which trumpets a promised land -- Virtual Reality -- whose adjective, though few notice, signifies not heightening but diminution.

Those spooky commercials from MCI make their pitch through stark, solitary images, convincing the viewer that this new world is spacious, a vast new breathing space for the imagination; and interactivity, the Futurist insists, takes us beyond the global village, which was merely the result of mass media, to a situation where "electronically mediated relationships…actually turn the earth into a single global community." In fact, global villagers, like economic refugees, are being herded into a teeming tenement where the noise never stops. Some proclaim a triumphant new individualism, as computer users are liberated from the broadcasting elite; but how much individualism is really involved in the scanning of electronic bulletin boards? Their millions of users are for the most part in search of likemindedness -- confirmational politics and shared fetishes. Stitched inside our caul of satellites and information, not even leaving home to shop, we have begun to choke on our own data. By the time of his death in 1980, even Marshall McLuhan had had it with the global village he incorporated two decades before: "the more information one has to evaluate, the less one knows." In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman does debunk the supposed new disk-driven joys in favor of other ways of conquering "loneliness, ignorance, and disorder," but the truth is that we need more of all three, especially ignorance, in the form of new worlds we can be ignorant about. We are smart enough to get to them, but disinclined to go, settling for the occasional upward glance, like this July's, but otherwise content to sit and fatten on the terrestrial couch, talking and informing ourselves to death

IN ITS OWN WAY, of course, the couch is a spaceship. Even if the Great Attractor weren't tugging, we would still have a seat on the great moving globe. As David Hockney once mused:

I guess I hold with Buckminster Fuller's comment, you know, "We are in outer space." The idea that outer space is over there and we're not part of it is silly. We're already journeying throughout the universe. It's like how I can never seem to get interested in space movies, because they always seem to me to be about transport and nothing else. Well, transport is not going to take us to the edge of the universe, but an awareness in our heads might. Transport won't be able to do it; it's like relying on buses. But the Einsteinian revolution, like the Cubist, has already done it. Now we just have to open our eyes and see.

But to relish Einsteinian theory in this way -- trying, like the metaphysical poet, to apprehend thought as feeling -- one would have to pretend that we are content with other abstractions, too: of love, say, or ecstasy; and humans are not made that way. They are not capable of feeling here and there at once, and the urge to go cannot be stilled forever, any more than one can look at the humane, luminous surface of a Hockney painting without eventually wanting to poke through toward what seems to be the missing third dimension. "Transport" may be the perfect, gear-grinding noun for the shuttle, but the problem with space movies, what makes them unsatisfying even for those who want to leave here, is that they are just movies. Perhaps the most hopeful audience-reaction to this summer's zoom-lens films from Jupiter, after the comet has arrived on location, will not be to anything that happens on the planet, but an overdue, irritated realization of who is missing from the screen -- ourselves, all of us, out here in the dark.

Thomas Mallon, whose new novel, Henry and Clara, will be published this August by Ticknor & Fields, is also the author of the novel Aurora 7 (W.W. Norton).


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