It’s important to recognize, though, that the decision in question belongs to all of us, and not just to Barack Obama. The administration wouldn’t be cutting the manned spaceflight program if Americans were still enthusiastic about going to the stars — if space exploration still occupied a privileged place in our imagination, if our jocks still wanted to be astronauts and our nerds still wanted to build rockets. Obama is simply bowing to our culture’s priorities: Our geeks want to build a better XBox, and our jocks want to buy it to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Our technological energy is still immense, but it’s increasingly turned inward — toward communication, life-extension, and computer-generated adventure — rather than outward toward the stars.
In this sense, James Cameron really is an appropriate choice to opine about the space program. “Avatar,” not NASA, probably represents the future of the American relationship to distant planets. In the real world, we’ll be permanently earthbound — but inside the carapace of virtual reality, we’ll be kings of infinite space.
It’s been over 40 years since our species first landed on the moon. The small number of humans who have ever stepped foot on another world are now very old. I remember back in 1990 when George H. W. Bush made a declaration that some day we’d make it to Mars. That day keeps disappearing over the horizon.