Dreams of space

May 10, 1994|By Peter Callaghan

Tacoma, Wash. -- THE SUICIDE of rock star Kurt Cobain one month ago let loose a flood of amateur sociologists pondering the question: What does it all mean?

Deep thinkers exchanged sometimes vitriolic commentaries that attempted to blame Mr. Cobain's tragic death on everything except severe depression. Was it because his parents had divorced? Was it his inability to deal with his sudden fame? Was fTC his death the logical end game for a generation facing life with few options and little hope?

At times the debate became an excuse for generational bloodletting. Baby boomers used Mr. Cobain's death to attack the aimlessness and nihilism of their juniors. The twentysomethings reacted with pent-up resentment of increasingly moralistic lectures from a generation whose earliest contributions to Americana were free love and the drug culture.

It's now become clear, however, that everybody had it wrong. While we were searching desperately for the complex meaning of Mr. Cobain's death, the simple truth was emerging in the mind of an unlikely philosopher. Dan Goldin, the administrator of the National Atmospheric and Space Administration, put his finger on the solution in a speech last week to aerospace executives in Arlington, Va.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Goldin first complained that Congress' reluctance to fund NASA's big-science extravaganzas like the space station was due to its "wussy" mentality.

"America's not going to be wussy anymore," Mr. Goldin said. "Because we're going to build it, and launch it, and no longer debate it."

He then segued into Mr. Cobain's death. Generation X is depressed, Mr. Goldin said, because the government won't give NASA enough money to create a space program they can dream about.

"My child is not going to worship Kurt Cobain," Mr. Goldin said at the conclusion of a fiery, 30-minute speech. "My grandchild is going to worship the future. God bless you all."

Sure, this sounds simplistic at first. But would America turn over something as important and expensive as the space program to someone who seeks simplistic solutions to complex problems? Maybe Goldin's on to something. Let's look at the evidence.

As any student of recent history knows, when the space program was at its apex -- the July 1969 moon landing -- everything was right with the world. Sure, we were enjoying our third straight summer of urban unrest. And there was that little dust-up over in Vietnam. But other than those little problems, everything was, shall we say, groovy. If you doubt it, just listen to all of the Richard Nixon eulogies.

But just five months after the moon landing -- when everything about NASA seemed anti-climactic -- what happened? The '70s started. Now, get our your calculators and figure out whose formative years occurred in the '70s? That's right -- twentysomethings.

Can we blame people for feeling estranged when they spent their wonder years dreaming about Skylab? It's hard to dream about something when you're wondering whether it's going to crash through the roof of your bedroom.

Then, just when the space shuttle program was starting to get back on its feet, the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1987, killing New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe and six others. That same year, Mr. Cobain and Krist Novoselic formed Skid Row, which later evolved into Nirvana. Enough said.

But how can we take Mr. Goldin's wisdom and use it to save a generation seemingly on the verge of mass destruction? And what about the generation that follows the X'ers?

Simple. Give Dan Goldin money.

The nation has dropped more than $11 billion on the space station so far and the final cost is already expected to reach $30 billion. President Clinton wants $2.1 billion set aside for the station this year alone. But as Congress begins yet another budget cycle, the space station leads the list of cuts.

Wussies.

Sure it would be expensive. But it's worth it if you put it in the proper context. Forget about billion-dollar contracts for Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell and Grumman. Think of it instead as a social program. Heck, in a few years, it could become an entitlement.

And if $2.1 billion can cure youth depression, just think of the yuckfest that would result from $4 billion. While we're at it, what other social problems could we solve with big science? If the space station can bring twentysomethings out of their collective depression, is it possible to end welfare as we know it by restoring funding for the superconducting supercollider?

Come on America, think big. Save the space station. Save the children. God bless you all.

Peter Gallagher writes for the McClatchy News Service.

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