The hit movie “Gravity,” which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts in trouble after a Russian satellite explodes, has already gotten pundits leaping to their keyboards to try to wrest out some greater meaning. A case in point is an October 11, 2013 Washington Post piece by David Ignatius.
“Movies have a way of distilling moments in our culture, and ‘Gravity’ may be the defining film for the lost-in-space year of 2013: Nothing works. Our political system is clogged with debris. We can’t read the instruction manuals for rescue craft because they’re in Chinese. If we think help is on the way, we’re probably hallucinating because of oxygen deprivation.”
It’s a common trope that lazy writers sometimes use to try to tie popular culture with politics. One could have shoehorned any movie, say the new Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips” to craziness happening in the Middle East (as if there hasn’t always been craziness in the Middle East.)
Ignatius goes off the rails, though, with this statement:
“The world of 2013 is different: We don’t even attempt manned space programs anymore. They are too expensive, and what’s the point? Thank goodness for the plucky little Voyager I probe, which has just left the solar system, 36 years after it was launched, carrying sounds of Earth, including a baby crying, a whale’s song and Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode.’”
With the glaring exceptions of the International Space Station, the Orion and Space Launch System projects, and the commercial crew effort, Ignatius is certainly correct, which is to say he is dead wrong. It is a commentary on the state of journalism in 21st Century America that an opinion columnist for a major newspaper can so be unaware about the American space program. Not that NASA doesn’t have problems, mind, but we are actually attempting and carrying out manned space programs.
Ignatius is closer to the truth when he states this.
“The only aggressive space program these days, not surprisingly, is China’s. The Chinese plan to launch this year a lunar rover, called Chang’e 3, that would be the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the moon’s surface in 37 years. The Chinese are planning a manned mission to the moon sometime after 2020 and, subsequently, to Mars. The United States has abandoned that dream.”
Ignatius is partly wrong here as well. Officially NASA proposes to send expeditions to asteroids in the 2020s and then Mars in 2030. But he is correct that a return to the moon was cancelled. He does not mention, conspicuously, that the decision was taken by a president he supports, Barack Obama and that Congress has been fighting with him over that decision ever since.