The XX Factor

Tom Wolfe Has Me Rethinking the Space Program

Maybe Will Blythe had the best two sentences in yesterday’s Book Review , Jess, but in Saturday’s New York Times , I grudgingly admit, Tom Wolfe took the cake. To prepare us all for tonight’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing-too bad the networks won’t be running the original footage, since, as Sam pointed out, NASA taped over it -Wolfe wrote a little obituary for the space program . The moon landing, Wolfe argues, was both NASA’s moment of triumph and “a real knee in the groin for NASA.”

I’ve never been one of Wolfe’s idolators-it’s hard to appreciate the insane brilliance of writing so saturated with self-satisfaction. And I can’t even talk about the white suit . But Wolfe was there in late sixties America- chronicling Radical Chic and all that-and I wasn’t. So I read on.

What Wolfe’s brief history of the Space Race really drives home is what a dude’s race it was. The piece made me wonder whether, if there had been more women in charge in 1969, the moon would have become such a holy grail. I’m inclined to think not; I feel like a female president or congressional leadership would have found other things to pursue with our time and money, as Wolfe tells us the men in charge at the time did-just as soon as they touched that elusive pie in the sky (which was, incidentally, the classical emblem of virginity).     

But the end of Wolfe’s eulogy also left me questioning whether the space program (which actually isn’t dead- ETA Mars: 2030 ) is still just game for boys and their toys. I continue to think of affordable health care, reproductive rights, and finding new ways of sustaining ourselves on this planet as way higher priorities, but the ideas of the late NASA scientist Wernher von Braun, which Wolfe paraphrases ( always dangerous ), gave me pause:

“Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that … will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars … We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.”

Is it just me, or does von Braun’s message have an almost maternal ring to it? With all of the drilling and burning and warming we do on Earth, maybe we should put more resources into finding an alternate home for our children’s children.  Or is this just good ole’ Tom once again flaunting his powers of manipulation?

Photograph of the lunar landing by NASA/Getty Images.