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Lost in Space: The Decline of the American Spirit

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Fifty years after Alan Shepard became America's first astronaut, the US launched its last space shuttle, marking the end of our space program.  And a new low for the American spirit.

"Space: the final frontier... to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." The opening lines of  Star Trek captured the attitude of sixties-era Americans we were divided on other issues but united in support of our space program.  If you ask many Americans: "What was the United States' greatest moment?" many will answer: "July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon."

To understand the grip that the concept of Space: the final frontier had on the American imagination, it's important to remember where we were at the end of World War II.  Americans celebrated victory over the Axis powers, but the reality was that the US state of war didn't end: a cold war with the USSR replaced the "hot" war with Germany and Japan.  During the next twelve years, Americans had little role to play in the cold war, except to prepare for the nuclear war that, for many anxious years, seemed inevitable.

Then on October 4, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik and the space race began.  The US effort stumbled under President Eisenhower but then captured the American imagination after President Kennedy's May 25, 1961 speech where he challenged the US to "catch up and overtake" the USSR in the space race and to land an American on the moon before the end of the decade. 

Kennedy's inspired challenge leveraged four facets of the American character.  

First, we were fascinated with outer space.  The rocket era had begun with the 1944 bombing of London by German guided missiles V1 and V2 flying bombs.  Comic book astronauts, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, were firmly lodged in US popular culture; in 1949, "Captain Video" appeared on TV, followed by "Space Patrol," and then "Star Trek."  In 1950, the film "Destination Moon" was a hit; followed by "Forbidden Planet," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "Star Wars."

Second, Americans believed in ambitious national projects.  There was general acceptance of the narrative of the Benevolent Community, "Where neighbors and friends roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good." In the thirties Americans mobilized to end The Great Depression, in the forties to win World War II, and in the fifties to win the space race.

Third, Americans believed that it was important for our children to get a good education.  We valued scientists and engineers.  During the heart of the space race teenagers dreamed of working in high technology.

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Fourth, there was robust US optimism, a shared "can do" spirit; the notion that when Americans set our minds to a task we could accomplish anything.

The end of the US space program marks a shift in the American spirit.  Obviously, we are no longer fascinated by space our attraction was never the same after Armstrong's moonwalk.  What's more important is that somewhere during the past fifty years we lost our belief in the benevolent community and our confidence in ambitious national projects.  President Ronald Reagan convinced many Americans that "Government is the problem," and denigrated large-scale Federal efforts as "social engineering."  Reagan marginalized the space program. 

One of the benefits of the early days of the space race was that it gave every American a role to play; as was the case during World War II, it created an ethic of shared sacrifice.  Reagan's conservative philosophy thwarted this.  In place of the benevolent community he substituted blind faith in the free market.  The notion of common good was subverted to the maxim "what's in it for me?"

Armed with this new cynicism, parents no longer encouraged their children to go to school with the aim of ultimately giving back to the community.  Where in the fifties and sixties students imagined becoming engineers and teachers, in the eighties and nineties students dreamed of becoming investment bankers and property developers.  A bright mathematics student who in an earlier era thought about contributing to the space program now imagined a lucrative job on Wall Street, fabricating an exotic derivative.

American optimism receded.  Polls indicate that a strong majority of Americans feel the US is now headed in the wrong direction; many suspect that our best days are behind us. 

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Nonetheless, the United States remains a great nation with many strengths including resilience. The space program is dead, but that doesn't mean our spirit has to go down with it. 

What's needed is inspirational leadership.  America needs to resurrect the benevolent community and take on a new challenge.   The Great Seal of the United States bears the dictum, "E Pluribus Unum," Out of many, one.   That's the historic spirit of America that is needed now more than ever.


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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