One Giant Step

Coming of age during the hopeful days of American space exploration

My family moved from Japan to the United States in 1964, and we spent the next four years moving to a new state every year while my father looked for work. As my younger brother and I started new schools and moved into different neighborhoods, we rarely had other children around us. We were a working-class family, and my parents often fought about money.

But it wasn't just my parents who were fighting. We left Japan shortly after the Kennedy Assassination. By 1968 America was in the height of the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April followed by Bobby Kennedy in June. Just that week at school, I had made a collage with cutouts of Bobby Kennedy's magazine photos and handwrote his quote: “I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” I was inspired by this handsome man who spoke with such optimism.

As an eight-year-old child, it was hard to make any sense of all the violence in the world. Instead, I looked up at the sky and watched for the Apollo spacecraft that was circling the Earth. One hazy day I tracked a moving spot and thought for sure I'd seen the astronauts.

The July 20, 1969, moon landing brought my family together in Eugene, Oregon. We lived in a kid-friendly neighborhood that accepted our interracial family. My brother and I had made friends on our block and would play with them all day. But that summer night my brother and I came in early to gather around the black-and-white TV in the living room. My whole family rarely watched the same shows. But that night we watched flickering images of men in spacesuits jumping slowly in low gravity: “One small step for man,” said Neil Armstrong, “one giant leap for mankind.”

My mom, dad, younger brother, and I sat riveted to the grainy images on the screen, breathless, knowing that so many miles above us, three men had reached the moon and two were actually walking on it. It was the first time, and perhaps the only time, that my family clapped together in front of the television. My usually warring parents were quiet, and as a family we bonded for the first time: not fighting and not seeing sad reports of civil unrest, war, and political assassinations in this still strange new country that often didn't accept my Taiwanese mother and our interracial family. There was hope in that moment.

When, two years later, my family moved to a small, rundown farmhouse outside a rural town in Oregon, I lost that hope. This uprooting from our friends and neighborhood in Eugene where we finally felt safe and accepted was a turning point in our lives. It seemed from that moment on we started to grow apart. My mother and father worked night shifts and slept during the day while my brother and I went to school. We were left together alone at night, and I took on the role of babysitter, housekeeper, and cook.

It was during that time that my brother and I discovered Star Trek reruns on TV. The stories of space travel and faraway adventures kept us glued to the screen, but it was the vision of a future without racism, petty wars, or a need for material wealth that gave us hope. We carried that hope for a long time after, following news of the Apollo program and rising early to watch the launches and splashdowns. Throughout the years, space exploration gave me hope. If we could work together to venture out in space, I thought, then perhaps humanity could survive.

My brother and I diverged on different paths in our lives. He was bullied in school and withdrew into an inner world that he still doesn't often reveal. Only now have I come to realize how much science fiction and space travel helped him escape from a grim reality to one that held adventure and exploration. He still keeps the Star Trek plastic models of the phaser, tricorder, and communicator he built years ago in the quiet of his attic bedroom. Now in middle age, the only times he talks to me with excitement is when we watch sci-fi TV shows together and talk about a new NASA or commercial space launch. In that moment, we're still connected to an optimism that surpasses the disconnection of our everyday lives.

Star Trek and the space program ignited in me a love of science fiction and space science. Over the years, I have watched hundreds of sci-fi films and TV shows and read many science fiction authors. I was especially taken with Ursula K. Le Guin's stories and novels, which are thoughtful and critical of our own world and often uses travel to other worlds as cautionary tales of our way of life. One example is Le Guin's 1972 novel, The Word For World Is Forest, about a planet paradise with an indigenous people that is invaded by humans for its natural resources:

Ocean: forest. That was your choice on New Tahiti. Water and sunlight, or darkness and leaves.

But men were here now to end the darkness, and turn the tree-jumble into clean sawn planks, more prized on Earth than gold. Literally, because gold could be got from seawater and from under the Antarctic ice, but wood could not; wood came only from trees. And it was a really necessary luxury on Earth. So the alien forests became wood.

Recently, I discovered the African American science fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler's _Parable of the Talents_, which describes how the goal of space travel might save a dystopian future disabled by massive poverty, corporate takeovers, class wars, and anarchy. For the protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, space travel presents the same thrilling hope for a future as it did for me:

Traveling with the people are frozen human and animal embryos, plant seeds, tools, equipment, memories, dreams and hopes …

Now, I watch as, one by one, the ships lift their cargoes from the Earth. I feel alone with my thoughts until I reach out to hug each of my friends, and look into their loved faces, this one solemn, that one joyous, all of them wet with tears.

When I was a child, shows and movies about space travel offered a way to open up my mind outside of our world with its problems and concerns. My eight-year-old self dreamed of jet packs and foldup cars like on The Jetsons. My friends and I talked about being the first generation to reach the stars. The older I got, I was sure we would have a moon colony as envisioned in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it's becoming clear that none of this will happen in my lifetime. As the space program changes its focus from sending astronauts into space and the budget continues to dwindle, it's up to private interests now: some noble, such as SpaceX's Dragon, a spacecraft created and funded by Elon Musk, the creator of PayPal; and many with capitalistic goals, such as Planetary Resources, a mining company in which Google's Eric Schmidt is an investor. These private ventures might get us further out and off a planet that is using up its resources and overpopulating at a rapid rate.

Now there is very little on TV or in books about space exploration as a source of optimism. Most science fiction films, TV shows, and popular novels feature a very grim post-apocalyptic future. While I grew up with the threat of nuclear war and the displacement of workers by post-industrial technology, young people now fear a world without the gadgets, conveniences, and social interaction of a technological world in which they've been raised. A recent Nielsen survey found that 48 percent of kids listed devices such as the iPad, iPhone, or iTouch, on their holiday gift wishlists.

Popular graphic novels and TV shows feature a world that's eradicated either through disease, as in the zombie apocalypse show The Walking Dead (adapted from the decade-long continuous graphic novel by Robert Kirkman), or from an alien attack, as in Falling Skies or Revolution, both of which feature an Earth without electrical power. All these television shows ask the same question: How will we survive the future?

As Robert Kirkman wrote in the introduction to his graphic novel series, “With The Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events change them.” This is the key to understanding why post apocalyptic themes are popular now in the television mainstream demographic of eighteen- to forty-nine-year-olds: we are living in severe economic and environmental conditions. Perhaps watching these shows is much more of a release than the bleak Cold War scenarios of Russia or China nuking the United States. Most of my generation knew that hiding under school desks during nuclear war drills would do no good. It was a pantomime that gave us no hope. As we grew into adults, we were primed to protest against the threat of nuclear annihilation. Now after the nuclear disasters of Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, we know that perhaps the missiles were not the signal of our doom but, instead, the threat may be closer to home.

It's difficult to escape that sense of disaster, which looms more overwhelming today than when I was growing up. While I remember alien invaders in movies or in a Twilight Zone episode, and short stories that detailed the aftermath of nuclear war, those were not as prevalent in the mainstream as they are today. Today it would seem we are also fearful of technological human-made disasters such as cyber attacks and pandemics. Even literary authors not known for science fiction, such as Cormac McCarthy in The Road and Margaret Atwood in Year of the Flood, predict a devastating future of a destroyed civilization and bleak landscape. As Atwood writes:

This was not an ordinary pandemic: it wouldn't be contained after a few hundred thousand deaths, then obliterated with biotools and bleach. This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners so often had warned us about. It had all the signs; it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror and butchery. The lights were going out everywhere, the news was sporadic: systems were failing as their keepers died. It looked like a total breakdown.

In these dystopian visions of the future, there are no computers or Internet, and social engagement is only for day-to-day subsistence survival in a quest to find safe haven while rallying against a common enemy.

As young people accumulate six-figure debts for college educations that don't guarantee their economic futures, they don't appear to be seeking out utopia as I once did. If one were to look at the media they consume, it would seem their greatest fear is to lose everything: food, water, shelter, and the technology upon which they've come to depend. I am also drawn to these post-apocalyptic shows and novels. For me and perhaps for many young people, it may be a release valve for anxiety and the thrill of a safe fear but in some ways, we're just trying to gather information on how to survive the hellish future to come. (Homeland Security even launched a tongue-in-cheek public health campaign in 2012 urging people to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.) For many young people a post-apocalyptic TV show or movie provides a release of anxiety and a chance to study people in a disaster situation taking control of their lives. As a sci-fi fan posted on my Twitter feed, “I think everyone likes a view of how far humanity will go to survive.”

I don't blame the diminishing space program for our current loss of hope and grim, dystopian view of our future. But it's hard for me to let go of the sense that the space program buoyed me as a child during tumultuous times and to reconcile that with the dire economic, political, and environmental conditions young people are growing up in now. John F. Kennedy's declaration to the nation that we'd send a man to the moon rallied the country and gave Americans a sense of pride and optimism. Looking up at the night sky and aiming for the stars beyond the farmhouse I hated gave me a sense of purpose and a belief in the ultimate good that we all could achieve. To this day, images of spacecraft floating in space above the Earth or going toward a distant planet gives me “the thing with feathers” that Emily Dickinson calls hope. I wish younger generations could have this now.


Culture, Values, Media and Journalism, Literature


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