Are we boldly going places?

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Friday, November 06, 2009

NASA’s done a good job getting us into space, but should it work harder on convincing people why that’s a good idea? NASA photo
Chances are you’ll recognize the phrase, “To boldly go,” as part of the monologue introducing each episode of Star Trek. I’ve heard it called the most famous split infinitive in the English language, and whatever a person’s science knowledge or familiarity with Star Trek, they’ll usually recognize “To boldly go — where no one has gone before.”

Jeremy McCarter argues in “Rocket Men,” a story in the November 9 issue of Newsweek, that we need more of Star Trek’s ilk. He says a big factor in NASA’s past successes was the public’s general fascination with space, thanks to TV shows and popular books. He quotes from the book Rocket Men (2009) that “all three of rocketry's founding fathers read From the Earth to the Moon, and it changed the course of their lives.” To really get the population excited about space, he says, we need to show space once again as a backdrop for excitement, drama, and adventure, and not just the place where killer asteroids, aliens, and lousy movies come from.

Now, half the fun of the article was renewing my geek cred as McCarter listed off popular depictions of space. I agreed with almost all his characterizations, especially his praise for the underappreciated TV show Firefly and its movie sequel, Serenity. And while I can’t lay claim to having seen The Empire Strikes Back “several hundred” times, as he does, I once performed in a musical adaptation of it.

But, more than simply agreeing about classic sci-fi, I agreed with everything else McCarter said too. If we really want to go out and conquer the stars — or even just the nearest planets and their moons — we need a public that thinks it’s a good idea. Science and a sense of adventure have historically gone hand in hand, and if that isn’t clear to us anymore, someone has messed up. NASA does a pretty good job of keeping folks amused with its videos and tweets, but amusing is a long way from astounding, mesmerizing, or even just super cool.

I’m probably not an expert on super cool (see Star Wars musical reference, above), but I know Star Trek, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, and Contact helped get me interested in space, and I’m definitely not the only one. NASA’s been going into space for a few decades now, but perhaps it’s time it start boldly going.

Did any movies, books, or TV shows inspire you to get into space? Do you think NASA’s doing a fine enough job right now, thank you very much? Or do you (impossibly) think Firefly wasn’t that good?

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