Saturday, July 12, 2008

Countdown to Nowhere

(This is a follow-up post to yesterday's "Buzz Off" which concerns astronaut Buzz Aldrin's recent statements that shows like Star Trek led to the decline of support for the space program. If you haven't read it, go there first.)

I've gotten a lot of support and "attaboys" from people who read "Buzz Off," but it turns out I didn't win over everyone. Fact is, I thought this over pretty carefully, and there's a lot of stuff I DIDN'T put in the original post, because I didn't think it was necessary given the basic
facts. More would have just been clutter.

But since the facts weren't as obvious as I supposed, let's look at another major
problem with the Buzz Aldrin theory. I don't think the historical time-line supports it.

At first glance, though, you might think the dates line up well. Star Trek was on TV from September 1966 through September 1969. The collapse of the space program's support is really centered around 1970. (The live TV broadcast from Apollo 13 wasn't covered by any of the major networks live, and it flew in April 1970. Apollo 20 was canceled in January of 1970. Two more Apollo missions were canceled in September of 1970.)

So the dates seem close, but I don't think it holds up to scrutiny.

First of all, remember that Star Trek was a failure in its broadcast run. It was nearly canceled in September of 1968 (while Apollo 8 had the world's attention, and Apollo 11, which drove the country (and the world) into a frenzy was nine months away. In fact, the decision to pull the plug on Star Trek had to have been made just about the time Apollo 11 landed, and the program was at the peak of its popularity and public interest.

Star Trek REALLY didn't take off until it was in syndication and college kids started watching it. I don't have a good date for that, but I suspect we're talking 1971 or 1972, when the smoking gun had long-ago gone off.

But the decisions to pull the trigger on that gun had to be made earlier.

Congressional support had to deteriorate sometime well before the cuts started, and the decision not to cut-in live on Apollo 13 probably resulted from viewership numbers on Apollo 12, which flew in November of 1969.

Of course, Apollo 12 blew out its TV camera shortly after landing, and that probably accounts for a lot of any ratings tumble. You can hardly blame that on Star Trek. (Ironically, almost without exception, Star Trek never showed TV cameras being taken along by its explorers.)

In any case, if Star Trek somehow poisoned the U.S. public on the space program, it did it as a low-rated show with a limited audience. And indications are that, during both first-run and in its re-run "boom" period, the audience for Star Trek largely consisted of people under 21. The voting age was still 21 at this time, and wasn't lowered to 18 until July of 1971. So as far as political influence, it's hard to see how it ever could have had any significant impact at that point in time.

The first evidence that Star Trek fans had political clout didn't come until the first Space Shuttle was renamed ENTERPRISE, following a letter-writing campaign to the Ford White-house by fans. I don't have a date for this, but it happened sometime between when President Ford took office in 1974 and the Enterprise roll-out in 1976. Since construction didn't start until June of 1974, and its original name was "Constitution," and Ford took office in August of '74, it would not likely have been any earlier than that. It's very likely that the reduction in the voting age was a factor here.

Regardless of the date, this hardly supports any lack of support or interest in the real space program by Star Trek fans. Quite the contrary.

On the other hand, NASA's internal grumbling and foot-dragging on the matter is a fine example of how they loved to shoot their public image in the foot. Here was a great opportunity to connect their mission with the public, and rather than exploit it to the fullest, they minimized it as much as possible.

I just don't see any evidence here that Star Trek harmed the space program in any way.

Of course, Aldrin wasn't specific that he was talking about Star Trek, but there just aren't many other on-air TV candidates for killing support of the Space Program.

Lost in Space started (and ended) a year earlier than Star Trek, and had a much bigger audience than Star Trek, but there was no beaming there. There were aliens (often very silly aliens) and interstellar travel (though the science was so weak that I don't recall any kind of faster-than-light drive ever being mentioned). But most of the signature hardware, robots, space-walks, jet packs, surface crawlers, and a very LM-like landing vehicle, were all right off the NASA drawing boards at that time. It was more futuristic and advanced, but in its own way, much more realistic than Trek.

The British series UFO (which featured a modest and fairly believable lunar base) didn't reach U.S. syndication until 1971 and 72. The follow-up Space 1999 with a much bigger Moon base (and some screamingly bad science) didn't show up until 1975.

Other than that, I can't think of anything (other than some Saturday morning cartoons) that qualifies. Feel free to correct me if I've missed something significant.

Meanwhile, all the stuff that Aldrin frets about, teleportation, faster-than-light travel, and so on, had been popular staples of print and comic science fiction since at least the 1930s. Somehow, the U.S. space program got off the ground anyhow (mostly by people who had at
some point read plenty of the stuff.

And we can't ignore movies. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were rocketing off to alien worlds in theaters as early as 1936 (and on radio starting in 1932). Heck, even Duck Dodgers used a teleporter in his first 1953 cartoon appearance!

None of the offending concepts or devices was invented by Star Trek, or any TV show. It predates broadcast television entirely.

Really, looking at the evidence, if the time-line supports anything at all, it's the idea that cutbacks in the Apollo program (and news coverage of same) may have contributed to the renewed popularity of Star Trek in syndication in the early 70s.

If the real space program wasn't going to give us the stars (or even the Moon again, or Mars) anytime soon, we'd watch Star Trek and dream until it did.

That just makes more sense than the idea that B led to A.

But there's a subtext in the time-line the supports more significant factors.

At least some of the press (and the public's) interest in covering the Apollo program has to be traced to the camera failure on Apollo 12. Apollo 13 might have turned that around, but it never made it to the moon, and was covered for entirely different reasons.

Support for Apollo in congress was weakening by early 1970, when Apollo 20 was canceled. The next two cancellations happened after the near loss of Apollo 13. By then, the risks were obvious, and there's no political stock to be gained in backing a losing horse. Better to end the program a winner.

It was also obvious by then that the press was more interested in covering failures in space than successes. Lose, lose. Not much here you can blame on Star Trek.

Combine this with the growing cynicism about government, and the huge cost of the Vietnam war (which lead directly to the cancellation of the Air Force's manned space program before it even started), and there just wasn't anything to be gained politically by backing NASA. Again, not Star Trek's fault.

The facts aren't there. The logic isn't there. Star Trek didn't do it. No science-fiction TV show did. If anything, Star Trek has been a positive influence on people's interest in space.

So, anybody want to start a write-in campaign to name the first, manned, Orion crew-capsule to reach orbit (no test models this time!), Enterprise?

More writings about the Moon:

Closely related to this topic, I have a couple of previous posts about the Moon and the Apollo program that you should check out:

Buy Me The Moon
Why the Apollo program didn't cost nearly as much as most people think it did, and how we might trade certain -- luxuries -- for a Moon base or a Mars program.

1200 Days On Mars
People say there's no reason to return to the Moon. "Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt." Well, we haven't been there, haven't done that, and we don't even know where the tee-shirts are sold. How we've barely touched the Moon, and how it compares to our current unmanned explorations of Mars.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Buzz Off

Don't you hate it when one of your childhood heroes says something so profoundly wrong and stupid that you just have to call them on it? Unfortunately, it just happened to me.

The hero in question is Apollo 11 moon-walker Buzz Aldrin. Ironically, I ran across this story on the US Sci-Fi Channel's "Sci-Fi Wire" news site. If any of the space sites or major news sources picked it up, I didn't see it. Aldrin was shilling his new National Geographic Channel show, "Unseen Moon," at the annual TV Critics Press Tour.

Anyway, Aldrin went on about how "unrealistic" science fiction television shows caused the public to lose interest in the space program. He doesn't name names, but he keeps mentioning "beaming," which seems like a reference to Star Trek. But he also is quoted as saying something about the shows being on "today," which kinda points a finger towards Stargate Atlantis, the only other current show I can think of that "beams" people.

Or maybe he's confusing reruns with new shows, or is being unclear about the time. Because, the public started losing interest in the space program before half the people working on Atlantis were born.

So I'm going to assume he's talking about Star Trek, since its the best known and most iconic space science fiction show, and its history somewhat parallels that of the space program.

Just so's you know I'm not taking him entirely out of context, here's what he's quoted as saying:

"I blame the fantastic and unbelievable shows about space flight and rocket ships that are on today. All the shows where they beam people around and things like that have made young people think that that is what the space program should be doing. It's not realistic."

and later in the article:

"But, if you start dealing with fantasy and beaming people up and down and traveling seven times the speed of light, you are doing damage. You're not helping. You have young people who have got expectations that are far unrealistic, and you can't possibly live up to the expectations you have created in young people. Why do they get bored with the space program? That's why."

Can't have those young people stretching their imaginations and developing unrealistic expectations, can we? Good grief. Next thing you know, he'll be going on about the sins of dancing and the dangers of "the rock and roll."

Seems to me, Buzz, that if some young people, scientists and engineers, had not developed unrealistic expectations based on the unrealistic works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, there might never have been rockets into space.

Though Verne is credited with being highly predictive of the Apollo program in many respects, he shot his adventurers to the moon with a giant cannon, something even an engineer of the time could have shown was impossible. Verne, in turn, scoffed at Wells, who sent his travelers to the Moon using an "unrealistic" anti-gravity metal. (This debate is not a new one.)

Many later space program participants also cite the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs as inspiration, which were even more fantastic and romantic. His hero, John Carter, travels to Mars through some kind of ill-defined astral projection, and his Mars is populated with all manner of fantastic creatures and races, including one that happens to have hot (yet egg-laying) females with whom Carter can conveniently interbreed. (Thus, I suppose, clearing the way for Captain Kirk to later bed-hop across the galaxy.)

And of course from there we can go the the Lensmen books of E.E. Doc Smith, or the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein, for example. Smith's books are as fantastic, in their way, as Burroughs. Heinlein tried to be more realistic, but his books are still full of aliens and rockets flitting from star-to-star.

Yet this sort of stuff has managed to somehow inspire generation after generation of scientists, engineers, pilots, space advocates, and yes, even astronauts. In fact, many of the current crop site Star Trek, and the even-more-fantastic Star Wars, as inspirations.

The fact is, Buzz has it all wrong. Realism isn't the issue. Scientific accuracy isn't the issue. Science fiction is inspiring to those who make real space travel possible, and it's inspiring for entirely different reasons.

Star Trek offered hope that humans could go to the stars, that there might be other life in the universe, and that we would find it, and it would ultimately be good. It also offered the hope that humans could solve enough of our internal struggles to survive and work together to make it possible.

The how of getting there isn't important, it's the hope, the wonder, that we could. Once you've embraced that, you don't look around and say, "well, I can't beam to space, so I'm not going." No, you go and find the next nearest thing you can, the Shuttle, Spaceship One, the new Orion vehicle, and you try and get on it if you can.

And if that isn't good enough, you roll up your sleeves and try to make something better. Not the Enterprise probably. Not a transporter. But better.

Or at least, you hope somebody else does, and you're much more likely to support them if they say they're trying.

No, I'm afraid Buzz has it all wrong.

Not that I can blame him for his frustration, maybe even anger at our lack of progress in space, and the public's seeming apathy towards it. It's just that he's lashing out in the wrong direction.

The reasons for the public's lack of interest are complex, and I don't think there's one single thing to blame. But if fingers are to be pointed, I think you can start with NASA's stunning ability to counter-promote itself. We're not just talking inability to promote here. We're talking an exhaustive 40+ year campaign to dehumanize its astronauts into bland, interchangable drones in the public eye, and to make some of the most exciting voyages of adventure in human history, seem boring.

Buzz has always been one to buck that trend. Unlike some of the Apollo astronauts, he's not been reclusive, or allowed himself to be one of NASAs obedient PR pawns. He's been out there, in the public eye, pushing himself as an individual, and yeah, even licensing his image for toys, models and other trinkets.

Even signing on to host TV shows. Yeah.

And I've always backed him on that, because the astronauts should be rewarded for their courage, celebrated for their place in history, and appreciated as the deep and complex human beings that they are. If that means Buzz Aldrin Action figures, well, that's fine, because I want a Buzz Aldrin action figure, and I want one for my grandkid too. I want to know their stories, the good and bad of them. If they have something to say, I want to listen. And if they make a little cash along the way, more power to them. Who do I make the check out to?

But this time, Buzz is just wrong. He just doesn't know what he's talking about.

We should be thankful for Star Trek and Stargate and Star Wars and all the rest, that kept people thinking about the future, thinking about the stars, thinking about the planets, and not thinking about "if," but only "how, and when?" Because it's only through that spark of hope that we'll get there, however we do it.

And I'll take that spark any way I can get it, thank-you...

(While most responses to this post have been supportive and positive, not everyone was convinced. So I put some of my cast-off arguments into a follow-up post that I hope will put the matter to rest. Check it out.)