So: do you think the guy who wrote that article called up this site today, hoping he’d find a foamy-mouthed point-by-point reply?

Maybe. Who cares? Let’s talk about the stars.

Note: I am in the middle of final ultra absolutely serious end-times editorial revision for the next book, so I can’t hone & sand whatever follows; pardon the typos and grammatical abominations, as well as, no doubt, what can certainly be called, without dispute, run on sentences. Sentence fragments also.

In the summer of 1979 I drove around the South as a representative for the seed dealer Northrup King. I took orders for the next season and gathered the racks from the previous season. Had a yellow Hertz van and a farmer tan. Slept in small motels, drank a lot of Nehi. At night sometimes I’d find myself sitting outside watching traffic and smoking a cigarette – the paperwork was done, the TV showed only snow, and I didn’t feel like reading. If it was a small motel it had a chair outside the door - a detail of American roads I expect is nearly gone by now. You had all the necessary sounds for a night in nowhere: the buzzing sign, crickets, carwheels whining on the asphalt. If you were lucky you got train whistle. Nothing quite makes you feel so gawd-awful alone as a train whistle, but you also know that if you weren’t alone you wouldn’t hear it the same way. When you’re alone it goes right down to the bone.

Anyway. If I found myself in a small motel with a chair out front, chances were I wasn’t spending the night in a small town. Not much light comes off from a two-block downtown, and that means you get more stars. More sky. Back then, in July, we paid attention to the skies; we looked up more than usual, waiting for Skylab.

It was the big joke of the summer: 87 tons of spacecraft heading down, and no one knew where. Naturally, everyone made fun of this. Carson jokes. “I Survived Skylab” TV shirts, novelty caps, a disco song. (Can’t find evidence of it anywhere, but I remember diving for the radio every time it came on. Skylab’s fallin! wackachita wackachita.) It was infuriating, at least to me, because it was so starkly symbolic of everything. Nothing had worked out. I’d grown up expecting that clichéd Jetsonesque world with moon bases and jump suits and women with silver hair, and all I got in the end were gas lines, glowering ayatollahs, Hee-Haw, and stupid ugly space stations that fell down. Twenty two years to 2001; didn’t look good.

I TiVod “Marooned” the other night; it’s one of those movies I always have to watch when it comes on. Ever seen it? Long, achingly paced account of a space capsule that can’t return to earth after nine months in a Skylab-type space station. First saw it when I was 13 or 14, and as you might expect: coolest movie ever! Subsequent viewings cooled me on the film, and around the fifth , it bored me. By then it was chopped up, washed-out, pan and scan – and of course I knew what was going to happen, having seen it five times. I was a taken aback when MST3K flayed it, because it wasn’t that bad. C’mon, it has David Jansen as an Astronaut Who Pounds the Table, Gregory Peck as a NASA administrator who sounds and behaves just like Gregory Peck, and Tony Franciscus as an astronaut who spends nine months in a tin can and still has a fabulous Malibu tan.

So it’s on the other night. So I watch it. I stop about half an hour through, and check Amazon to see if there’s a DVD version; there is. I buy it. I pop for the fast shipping, too. Why?

* It deserves to be seen in wide screen. The print I saw on TV was very good, and made me realize I’d never seen the movie as it was originally made. It’s like discovering there was actually another chapter to Clockwork Orange. (Which there was, you know.)

* It’s not that bad. Marianne Hartley overdoes the Stepford bit in the first act – well well, our hubbies are dead, but cheer up fellow useless astronaut armcandy! Let’s go make cookies for our 1273 children.

* Because we’re going back.

Watching "Marooned," I saw all the usual scenes from the moon-shot era – grim men studying telemetry in antiquated control rooms, low-tech spacecraft control interfaces, stock footage of the rockets thundering up. I realized again that depictions of NASA’s Golden Age gave me an ambivalent set of emotions – pride in what these people had done, and shame that it had stalled and wandered. “From Earth to the Moon,” “The Right Stuff,” “Apollo 13,” and others – as much as I enjoyed them, they made me sad and pissed. We should have kept going. We didn’t.

Yes, I know – cheap robots do the job just as well, and sometimes better. Our cosmological imaging programs have returned stunning results. It only seems like we’ve stalled because we don’t see grainy photos of men on another planet driving around and playing golf.

But we’re not driving around and playing golf. More to the point: It has been too long since a human hand put a flag on another planet, and I’d like to see that happen again. It will happen; it's just a question of who does it. I would prefer that the hand be American.

In other words, I’d rather that hand represent the world.

Huh? You say. Wha? A UN flag would represent the world.

No, a UN flag would represent bureaucrats and governments. When I think of an American astronaut on Mars, I can’t imagine a face for the event. I can tell you who staffed the Apollo program, because they were drawn from a specific stratum of American life. But things have changed. Who knows who we'd send to Mars? Black pilot? White astrophysicist? A navigator whose parents came over from India in 1972? Asian female doctor? If we all saw a bulky person bounce out of the landing craft and plant the flag, we’d see that wide blank mirrored visor. Sex or creed or skin hue – we’d have no idea.

This is the quintessence of America: whatever face you’d see when the visor was raised, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

To prove I am a rank sentimentalist: I say the first foot on Mars belongs to a Navajo. No: a Navajo from the Marine Corps. Just because. I can’t think of a reason why not. Can you?

People are already hashing and trashing the new space initiative; those who know the subject well seem skeptical; the very idea got a DUMBASS tag at Fark. Conason drew a scaaaary Haliburton connection, which just defies parody.

Whatever. Fact: In the middle of a war against medieval-minded foes, we decided that we should also head back into space. We’re not going to close the borders, curl up under the covers. The right hand holds the sword, the left hand holds the sextant. If you’d asked me on 9/12/01 what headline I thought I’d see on 01/14/03, I would have said something depressing like “Seattle relies on Israeli experts for help in nuke damage” or some such apocalyptic concept. Back then it all seemed ready to tumble into the deep black pit. I would have been cheered to learn that attacks on our troops in Iraq were down 22 percent. I would have been gobsmacked to learn we had decided to return to the moon as well. That's the sort of news that transcends today and defines tomorrow.

And makes people blurt out silly rhetorical curlicues like the one above. Okay, let's have some more:I have a dream. I believe that this nation should put a man on the moon by the end of this decade and keep him there. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard and expensive and boring and lethal and just might – might – give people something to watch that’s more important than Paris Hilton pitching a fit because she chipped a nail. But we know how it’ll go. We know that awe and wonder will quickly give way to japes and boredom. Year One: everyone’s riveted to webcam streams from Moon Alpha. Year Two: a UPN sitcom about life on a moon base draws more viewers. Year Three: New York Times Sunday Mag runs a story about how we’re really not learning very much on the moon, and the entire program is driven by NASA cliques who zealously guard their power against the anti-moonbase forces who want to shut the program down. That’s a given. If there had been TV reporters and satellite uplinks on Columbus’ voyage, most of the coverage would have dealt with scurvy and the lack of an exit strategy.

I wonder if we can embrace a big idea again. The moon shot was nonpartisan – Kennedy dialed the number, Nixon talked to the astronauts. Politics stopped at the ionosphere’s edge; it was an American gambit. I’d like to think we can do that again. I want to watch the Moon Channel with my daughter in 2010.

I want my child to look at the night sky and always think: this is the beginning. This is square one. More, please; faster. I want my child to be bored with the Moon, used to Mars, and desperate to learn what the Europa expedition has learned. I want my daughter to be an old woman sitting in a chair at her cabin up north, looking up at the bright brilliant sky, wondering if her kids remembered to dump daddy’s ashes on their field trip to the moon, or whether they just plain forgot, flushed them down the shuttle loo and claimed they scattered me near the LEM Memorial Site.

Dumped out the airlock by feckless grandkids? I can think of lesser fates.
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