Two tantalizing developments in late October, just days shy of the most demoralizing presidential campaign in memory:
1) Using NASA data, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science announced it had calculated that more than 8.8 billion Earth-like planets inhabit the Milky Way galaxy alone, and 2) another journal, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, identified 234 stars amid a survey of 2.5 million in which light pulse signatures were consistent with theoretical models suggestive of extraterrestrial intelligence. The second item is far more speculative and controversial than the first, but the confirmation of either would be turn out conceits upside down. Or at least we wouldn’t have to resign ourselves to the idea that the way we do things on Earth is as good as it’s ever going to get.
Nope, UFOs haven’t destroyed Capitol Hill or the Kremlin, and De Void is not back. But after seeing how corporate media blew its most promising opportunity — ever — for instigating a policy-level discussion of The Great Taboo, it’s difficult to sit back and pretend we’re not in deep trouble, and on such a fundamental level. Growing ever more adept at parroting trivia, fear and anger, the Fourth Estate appears to have also lost its connection with issues that tug at the best of who we are or hope to be.
For decades, I followed crowds of visitors onto the banks of the Indian River Lagoon and the beaches of Cape Canaveral, where they gathered for the countdown to shuttle launches and planetary missions, most of which rarely rumbled off according to schedule. But no matter. Taking expensive chances with the weather and the inevitable hardware glitches, they rolled in from everywhere, from the around the world, pickup trucks, RVs, lawn chairs, binoculars, bug spray, SPF50, coolers, Coleman grills, lanterns, campfires, tripods, radios, you name it, they packed it. And it wasn’t just to watch — they could’ve tuned into network coverage for that, and with a lot less aggravation. They came to participate, to be a part of something that reduced whatever affiliations divided them into irrelevance, even if they weren’t aware of it. And they were unified by storylines that generated parades of firsts:
First woman astronaut, first black astronaut, first teacher, first Saudi, first Israeli, first American in orbit giving it another shot to see if his 77-year-old bones could withstand, 35 years later, the rigors of space flight. There were multi-ethnic multi-racial shuttle crews fulfilling Gene Rodenberry’s “Star Trek” prophecy. There were astronauts pushing back against skittish administrators, demanding a chance to risk their lives to fix a failing telescope renowned for peering into the edge of time. There was the 96-year-old widow of the astronomer who discovered Pluto, onsite to watch an unmanned craft deliver, among other things, her husband’s ashes to that unimaginably distant world.
This was the stuff of pilgrimages. And the entire world joined the learning curve, sometimes in horror, learning to exhale only after solid-rocket boosters cleared the fuel tank at the 90-second mark. On the high frontier, death is the ultimate price of knowledge. Yet, the waiting list to engage that voyage swelled. And it has been this way since the first crude vessels pushed off for nothing more than hunches and theories beyond the horizon.
Walter Cronkite once said history will look back on America’s Apollo moon program as the 20th century’s crowning achievement; indeed, the study of the transformation that occurs when space travelers gaze upon Earth — called the “Overview Effect” — is only beginning. But Cronkite’s sensibilities were nowhere in evidence during the presidential debates. There were 27 national stage-managed auditions during the campaign of 2015-16, and unless I missed something, not a single journalist bothered to solicit a candidate’s vision for space, the arena in which the U.S. and Russia are indispensable partners. Not a one. In fact, after securing their party’s nominations, neither Trump nor Clinton could find room for a website blurb on NASA policy. But you can bet your ass those two would’ve dashed off something, no matter how cynical or meaningless, had a single member of the press stepped to ask about it in a public forum.
Which brings us to journalism’s great lost moment. For the first time ever, a major-party candidate attempted to put UFOs up for discussion. With persistent nudges from campaign manager John Podesta, Hillary Clinton on three separate occasions indicated not only a conversational grasp of the phenomenon but also a rhetorical willingness to pursue the issue wherever it led. All three statements rated cut ‘n’ paste international attention. But not a single major daily or network had the guts, or the foundational knowledge, to ask HRC why — exactly — she was so interested in broaching such a politically radioactive topic. Given how no news division or editorial board chose to make an issue of our once-esteemed space program, their failure to confront Clinton with her own counterintuitive UFO remarks is perfectly consistent. Esquire magazine’s jab at the Podesta/Clinton gamble, published two weeks ago, was the final shovel of snark in the cycle. The headline summed up the collective media treatment over the preceding 10 months: “Cracking the Crackpot Vote — How do you win over true believers (in extraterrestrials) in an election this crazy?” As if that were a bit too subtle, the editors dolled it up with an illustration of HRC sitting on a flying saucer shooting a laser beam from its belly.
What is truly unforgivable here is journalism’s demonstrated inability to support rigorous inquiry into whatever may be waiting for us out there, conventional angles or otherwise. Even as the universe grows more crowded and complex with each flip of the calendar.
Like an amoeba, our species assumes its definition not at its middle, but at its leading edges, at the margins, where it decides to go next. If we’re losing our capacity for awe — not to mention an appreciation for the human ingenuity required for translation — look first to the media for culprits. Clinton-Trump ’16 gave us an opportunity to take a chance and embark upon a dialogue that would make political history, no matter who won. And like a flash of distant summer lightning, that moment flickered and vanished. Almost as if it never happened.