In 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane, no one cared. Thereafter the Wright Brothers flew outside of Dayton, OH, for years without attracting any more attention than the occasional newspaper reporter, who probably hoped to see a spectacular and fatal crash.
Yet the myth of Icarus, the dream of flight, is at least as old as recorded history. We are told of myths from nearly every culture that record the dream of flight.
In 1960 the Soviets put a man into orbit around the Earth. It was a stunt, intended more to demonstrate the superiority of their system than to push scientific and technological boundaries.
In 1969 NASA put men on the Moon. Flying to the Moon had also been a dream of Mankind, if not in the sorts of myth the dream of flight enjoyed, then in literary fantasies. It didn’t seem like a lot of people cared about that, either. At the time something like 40% or less of the American public thought we should be spending money going into space. One newspaper at the time published a headline reading “So What?” over a photo of Neil Armstrong – possibly the single most dramatic picture ever taken by any human – standing on the plain of the Sea of Tranquility. A few years after the last Moon landing Senator William Proxmire killed the entire Apollo program.
At the present time we have three space probes that have escaped the pull of our Sun’s gravity. Constructs of humanity are thus headed to the stars, however many thousands or millions of years it may take them to get to even the nearer ones. We have had probes on Mars, sending back pictures of the Martian surface, since 1977. We have probes on Venus, Titan and of course the Moon. Other probes orbit the Sun, Mars, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Other countries have their own probes; Japan even has a prototype ion drive satellite wandering around the inner solar system.
Ion drive. A spacecraft with ion drive. I remember reading science fiction stories about that when I was a kid, and now it’s becoming real.
Each and every one of these achievements are something out of a heroic myth. They give our civilization identity and meaning. They give us hope that we can be something more than the murderers and thieves that our histories tend to celebrate as kings and nobles and CEOs. That we can, we really, truly can, dream that impossible dream – and find it no so impossible after all. That we can, we really truly can, reach for that unreachable star, and find it in our grasp.
But outside of a few science types nobody cares. We are – or at least we could be – on the verge of achieving a true space-based civilization. The point to that is we can think new thoughts. We can expand the possibilities, the potential, of humanity to something approaching the infinite.
That’s the truth we could have, and that we ignore; the dream we could make real, but deny. What does that say about us? That we don’t even ask why we aren’t willing to dream, and then try to make those dreams come true?
So the question I ask is this: are all these dreams for nothing?