words on the Moon

As a child the spectacular daring of men on the Moon inspired me. One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind extends a hairline beyond the terminator of my memory. I am old enough to remember the later Apollo missions. I zoomed around the living room during the opening credits of TOS before we called it TOS: to boldly go where no man has gone before. It was a time in my life and for the country when every boy dreamed to be an astronaut. And it was always man, mankind, boys: this was a decade before I began to penetrate beyond a skin-deep awareness of gender, coinciding with the biological imperatives of adolescence, visions from encountering New Wave science fiction, a broader diversity of crew on the Space Shuttle.

As an adult I maintain a general sense of optimism about the future. I’m still transported by videos and images from the Space Age, starting with we choose to go to the MoonThinking about space continues to influence my thinking, from teaching my history of ideas course on the circle, to archiving information across the solar system.

Yet here we are, fifty years after Armstrong set foot on the Moon, and what has changed? Here on Earth, the place where I work remains way behind the curve along many measures of diversity. The city where I live is segregated and surrounded for miles by one of the most monochromatic parts of the nation. The politics of the nation itself are fractious.

As for the Moon, we are going there again, or so we’ve been saying for years, and then beyond. But, as with any endeavor, who is actually doing the work? Who receives the credit when things go well, who distributes the blame or spins the narrative when things falter?

In Kennedy’s speech, he declared, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet.” But as we humans fling ourselves into space, we carry the politics of difference with us. To a certain extent, this is inevitable, even welcome — individual distinctiveness is good. And I want us to be adventurous as a planet.

However, when we leave the development of rockets to a tiny group of plutocrats, we should wonder whether only the wealthy should control access to space. When art on the Moon or communication with potential extraterrestrial intelligences is dominated by small groups, we should question how broad their perspectives and methods can be.

I am not interrogating whether we should go to space. I think it is inevitable. We are a wondering, wandering species. All of us begin our lives as curious explorers. Instead, I am wondering how we should go about space exploration and development. Sometimes when I consider our ventures in the early 21st century I think: yes, let’s do it, let’s go to space. But no, don’t do it like that. It hurts that way.

We should be more grown up by now, acknowledging the value of multiple efforts, values, and perspectives. Otherwise, it’s just Whitey on the Moon all over again.

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