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Feb./Mar. '04 Articles:
Collateral Damage
Editorial: Dissent Under Siege
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
The Muddlemarch: 1
The Muddlemarch: 2
3rd Parties
Blood on Your Back
A Kid by Any Other Name ...
(music reviews)

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by Morris Sullivan
Contributing Editor

My parents woke me up, and carried me, still half asleep, out into the front yard, to stare into the clear Texas sky.

I vaguely recall watching a yellowish object moving slowly across the backdrop of star-dotted black sky. The moving object was "the Explorer," my parents explained. This was 1958, and the Explorer was the first satellite from the U.S. to free itself from earth's surface and make it into outer space.

I was too young to comprehend the satellite's importance. However, I did gather that my parents–and all the neighbors, who also stood in their front yards looking skyward–were very excited about it. Someone named "Russia" had apparently already launched a satellite; that Russia had beaten "us" into outer space was bad news. Now we had caught up, and that was a good thing.

A few years later, in May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke to Congress in his State of the Union Address. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth," Kennedy said.

Damned if we didn't do it–in just over a decade, the U.S. went from launching its first 30-pound satellite to putting humans on the moon. About eight years and two months from Kennedy's address to Congress, I sat glued to the television, eating popcorn, watching Neil Armstrong and listening to his famous line, "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind," as he stepped out of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon.

As a child of the space age, it's hard not to feel at least a little warm and fuzzy toward President Bush's goal of returning to the moon, and then traveling on to Mars. The space program influenced our culture in many very cool ways, inspiring architects, designers, musicians, and artists to produce everything from minimalist curvilinear furniture and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to Tomita's electronic electronic version of Holst's The Planets and David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

More important, of course, was its influence on the American psyche. In the 1960s, astronauts were heroes, and the space program gave us regular accomplishments to savor and new ones to anticipate: Today, we watched an American orbit the earth; next year, we'll watch a team of Americans orbit the moon; and after that, we'll watch an American bring home moon rocks.

It would be nice to have genuine heroes and heroics again, instead of the trumped up war-hero crap fed us by the government and Fox News. So while it pains me to agree with Bush on anything, I have to go along with him on this one. I can't wait to see us put another human on the moon, and hope I live long enough to see one land on Mars.

Of course, the Bush space plan has a lot of critics. Some point out that it's too expensive. The president asked Congress to apply some finite number of billions of dollars to NASA's budget for the program. I don't remember how many billions, and it really doesn't matter–it was just a starting point, and in any case it's a hell of a lot of money. So let's just say it will cost a bazillion dollars to get us to Mars.

"We don't have an additional bazillion dollars to spend in outer space," critics say. "We already need that bazillion dollars to conquer the Middle East. Besides," they'll add, "we need a tiny fraction of that bazillion bucks to do things like educate America's children, make sure people have access to healthcare, and important stuff like that." I agree; I can't think of any good, practical reasons to go to Mars.

However, I think we can afford it if we want to. Funding the space program is less a matter of ability to afford than it is a willingness to pay. Some might say, "We can't both go to Mars and solve the healthcare crisis, so we should put the money into healthcare," for example. That's tantamount to a school board saying, "We can either fund vocational courses like auto shop or fine arts programs. Since vocational courses prepare students to become productive consumers, let's drop that silly ol' fine arts stuff from the curriculum."

Some of us recognize the value of both social programs and space travel. Besides, a lot of us would rather conquer outer space than conquer Islam, so maybe we could siphon some money from the war chest and funnel it into the Mars program.

Others–mainly NASA people–criticize the plan for not being expensive enough. I have calculated it, and I think a bazillion dollars per year could get us to Mars inside four years. I estimate a stack of 100 used $1 bills to be about an inch high. If stacked one on top of another, one billion $1 bills would be almost 16,000 miles high. Mars is about 49 million miles from earth. If we increase the space program budget to just over $3.1 bazillion and pay for it in used $1 bills, then, we could just stack them and climb the pile of money all the way to Mars.

Of course, it would be easy to take a cynical view of the President's plan to expand the space program. I'd feel better about it if, like Kennedy, Bush had announced the plan in the first months of his presidency. Coming when it did, it just looks like a feeble attempt to stir up some goodwill and drum up some votes. I'd also have to assume that if there's more to it than just an election year marketing gimmick, there's some nefariously hawkish reason behind his space program. I can't figure out what, though. Unless al-Qaeda was somehow responsible for the early malfunction of the Mars Rover, I can't imagine being on Mars to be too useful in the "War on Terrorism."

However, I do have some criticisms of my own for the Bush space program: First, it's too slow. Second, it doesn't include a plan to send Bush to Mars.

Technology–and America–have advanced a lot since Kennedy's 1961 speech. I have on my coffee table an ad from Dell advertising a notebook computer for about 800 bucks. With all the available upgrades, the thing still costs less than $1,200 including a three-year warranty promising at-home repair visits from a highly-trained computer geek who spends his spare time memorizing Star Trek episodes and writing viruses designed to wipe out Microsoft products.

I'm not an expert on such matters, but I don't think a computer that powerful could have even been imagined in 1961, much less built. Assuming it could have existed, however, such a computer probably would have occupied three city blocks, cost more than the combined gross national products of England, France and Spain, and booting it up would have blacked out the Eastern Seaboard.

A "personal stereo," in those days, took up half the living room. Besides that, in 1961 TV reception was bad and there were only three networks, rock and roll radio stations were all AM, no one had ever thought of anything like the Internet, Southern black people had to drink from segregated water fountains, and there was still an American Football League.

If under those analog-age conditions we could go from watching Russians launch Sputnik to putting an American on the moon in a little more than a decade, then surely with today's technology we could start sending Republicans to Mars by the end of October.

In the same 1961 address to Congress in which he announced his intention to put a man on the moon, Kennedy also said the following:

"These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom's cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important. We stand for freedom."

Since the beginning of the current administration, world opinion has become decidedly more anti-American, our own government has increasingly attacked our civil liberties, the abyss between the rich and poor in our own nation has become even broader, and Fox premiered "The Simple Life." We now live in an unsafe world in which culture ranges from banal to baffling to boorish.

I think this qualifies as "extraordinary times" and "an extraordinary challenge." The space program can help turn our bleak situation around, especially if we send the Bush administration and his Republican cronies to colonize the next planet away from the sun.

Of course, we can't keep Mars to the Republicans alone; many other Americans deserve a one-way ticket to the red planet. My space plan would not only rid us of Republicans, but establish a culture on Mars that should keep them entertained, while culture on Earth improves exponentially for each person who leaves the planet bound for the Martian colonies.

We could send Justin Timberlake to Mars, for example, and let him bring Britney Spears and Paris Hilton along for company. As far as I'm concerned, the top four tiers of management in the entire American and British recording industry can also go along for the ride, and take with them the CEO's of the American broadcasting industry, along with anyone who has produced a show on Broadway in the last decade.

A few other obvious choices to send to the red planet colonies include: the language style experts who decided comma splices were acceptable in English usage–the damn things drive me nuts; people who think "Yo" is a word; Arnold Schwarzennegger; and the rest of California–which annoys the hell out of me by refusing to slide into the Pacific Ocean.

Not only will the rest of us be better off with their absence, some of these folks will fit in much better on another planet. Consider Rosie O'Donnell, for instance, who produced a musical on Broadway based on the relationship between Boy George and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Featuring songs like "Karma Chameleon," the show was greeted by universally bad reviews. Nevertheless, ticket prices started at $80.

Anyone who tries to sell $80 tickets to a Broadway show based on Boy George should be much happier on Mars.

Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan has written for IMPACT for more than five years. A freelance writer and former high school teacher living in DeLand, Florida, Sullivan is also a playwright. His most notorious work, Femmes Fatale, contained the infamous "Nude Macbeth," which has been covered by diverse news media from the BBC and NPR to Playboy, HBO's "Real Sex," and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

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Previous Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns

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