Tag Archives: Apollo 11

Bursting the bubble

Bubble Rain.  Source:  Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.
Bubble Rain. Source: Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.

Reza Aslan has had an interesting week in the limelight.  A few days following an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, he became the newest viral video sensation when an “interview” he did/was subjected to on Fox News garnered an impressive level of coverage, for both the stupidity of the questions he was being asked and his unflappable calm in responding to them; akin, as some have observed, to a teacher instructing a babbling child.  As he mentions in the clip, Aslan is an impeccably credentialed academic who has made a career of studying and writing about religion, and so, to be interrogated repeatedly by a person whose education beyond fourth grade is dubious (at least based on this clip), “why does a Muslim want to write a book about Christ?” is probably the intellectual equivalent of being asked who he’s wearing on the red carpet tonight.  The embarrassing affair veers further of the rails when she begins badgering him about why he hasn’t revealed that he’s a Muslim before (he has, on multiple occasions), as she panders to that sizable portion of the Fox demographic that presumes Muslim = al-Qaeda.  The blatant anti-intellectualism would be galling if it weren’t so unsurprising, if one did not have to assume that the interviewer’s questions were prepared and approved enthusiastically (with frat boy giggles, in all odds) by a cynical producer seeking to perpetuate an insular, terribly biased view of the world for the benefit of Fox’s ratings.

Bill Maher is fond of pointing out that conservatives live in a bubble where they cannot accept anything that challenges how they choose to view the world.  It is quite possible the person conducting the interview with Aslan was so committed to this mindset that why a Muslim would write a book on Christ simply would not compute.  When you sacrifice the scary world of the unknown for the comforting confines of dogma, of course the curiosity of others becomes impossible to understand.  That’s why you get members of Congress (on science and technology committees, of all things) claiming defiantly that we don’t need to worry about global warming because God promised Noah he would never flood the world again.  But this notion that one should stay inside the lines, refrain from asking questions about things we don’t understand and (horrors!) actively explore topics that interest us despite their seeming to have no relation to our own lives, goes against the very notion of human progress.  If we don’t venture out of the cave we don’t discover fire.  If we presume that the earth is flat and there is nothing beyond the ocean sea, I’m writing this post in England right now (actually, I’m probably scrawling it in ink on parchment).  If we accept that the moon is made of green cheese we don’t have Apollo 11.  We have to ask questions about things that are foreign to us.  We have to examine viewpoints that contradict ours.  In the case of persons of faith, it’s what strengthens that faith – for unchallenged it is not faith at all.  For those of us who choose not to walk the religious path, it’s gathering those elusive nuggets of truth that help us sort out our own thoughts on What It’s All About.  And that sometimes means examining religion too, even if Fox News can’t understand why we would do it.  Curiosity is a trait borne of hunger, from a dissatisfaction with the distasteful notion of accepting things as they are.  Being unwilling to accept limits.  Curiosity is what makes us smash through those limits with an iron fist and reach for what’s hidden on the other side.  You never know, it might be something good.

We are fortunate to be living in this time, when the world has geared itself like a finely-tuned clock toward the indulgence of curiosity, when information is readily available to those who seek it out.  The human thirst for progress has led us here, centuries from the era when the Fox News illiterati whom we now laugh at with millions of snarky voices were once those who would have had us burned at the stake in a heartbeat for uttering a single syllable against their ridiculously narrow view of the cosmos.  Millions of opinions on just as many issues are published every single day and we are free to sort through the noise to find the songs we want to add to our ever-expanding repertoire.  Why would a Muslim want to write a book on Christ?  Because he can.  And we should want to read it for the same reason (in a happy ending for him, Aslan’s book Zealot has hit #1 on Amazon’s rankings this week).  That’s how we learn.  Which, one supposes, is the real danger to the folks like the purveyors of Fox News who rely on closed minds to replenish their bank accounts – fill a bubble with too much knowledge and it bursts.

In Peace for All Mankind

Today is July 20, 2011.  42 years ago, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.  Forty-two freakin’ years.  My generation wasn’t even the proverbial glimmer in its father’s eye when the last guy (Eugene Cernan – I saved you a trip to Wikipedia) left the moon in 1972.  Your smartphone is infinitely more complex and powerful than the computer that guided the Apollo spacecraft to the surface of the moon and back.  Heck, even your wristwatch is probably more sophisticated.  So forty-two years ago we landed on the moon and forty-two years later we’re getting ready for the last space shuttle flight to come back to earth with the space program on fiscal life support and seemingly no clear direction as to where it’s going next – certainly not in terms of manned missions.  And far from being glued to their screens listening to Walter Cronkite describe Neil Armstrong’s descent from Eagle, people are likely more inclined these days to ask, “there’s still a space program?”

Public perception of NASA’s budget in the United States is that it accounts for as much as 20% of the total federal expenditure, when in fact it’s closer to 0.5%.  You have the country that arguably led the way into the heavens spending $600 billion a year on ways to kill people (which is always guaranteed to win lots of public support) when the entire Apollo program cost a total of $22 billion over ten years to put men on another world.  Thing is, if the people wanted more focus on outer space and voted accordingly, it would happen in a heartbeat.  So why don’t we?  When you think about the thousands of years of history that preceded July 20, 1969, the generations of civilizations looking up at the stars and wondering what was up there without the technological capability to see for themselves, the idea that human beings could ever look upon space with as much interest as they might have in a seven-year-old tax return is stomach-turning.  It’s a betrayal of the promise of who we are, and the worst form of cynicism.  Yet it happened.  Landing on the moon was cool once, became routine and then stopped altogether.  I’m at a loss to explain it, because I don’t see how you can look at those images the astronauts are tweeting from Atlantis and not be enraptured by the beauty, the fragility and the necessity of it all.

Opponents of the space program love to drag out the old cost-benefit rationale.  “What do our tax dollars get us?”  Certainly not a house in the Hamptons or a bridge in Brooklyn.  The greatest benefit of space exploration is not measurable by accountants, because it is in enriching the spirit.  It’s in asking questions of existence, faith and the human soul as much as any religion (which, by the way, gets numerous tax breaks without any demonstrable fiscal return).  It’s in expanding us beyond the confines of our tiny planet and imagining the possibilities of an entire universe – where human trifles that consume our thoughts and our fears today are reduced to the insignificance of sand grains in favour of something far greater.  Exploration united us on July 20, 1969 as Armstrong took that first step.  It can do so again – what is required is commitment, courage and above all else, curiosity.  And that is worth it.