Beyond Belief

Neil Armstrong's death reminds us that there is no such thing as faith-based progress.

The lodge at Camp Skoglund was an A-frame, painted barn red with white trim. It was the center of activity at the boys' camp, and on the night of July 20, 1969, it was unusually quiet. On most nights, the counselors would play music. Cream was popular that summer, and Iron Butterfly. Many of us would tap into our snack accounts to buy orange sodas and chips and play games or just goof around. But on this night, everyone sat on the floor, gathered in a semi-circle as one of the counselors fiddled with the rabbit-ear antenna on top of an old black-and-white television set as we squinted to discern Walter Cronkite's familiar face amid the static.

We were in the middle of Maine, on the banks of Echo Lake, about 15 minutes from the state capital, Augusta. And we had gathered to watch a man set foot on the moon for the very first time. For years I had followed with geekish gusto every twist and turn of the space program, every new class of astronauts, setbacks like the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, and every glorious achievement -- from space walks to docking to the Apollo 8 flight that had circled the moon for the first time. In my bunk, up the dirt path from the lodge, I had brought with me a box of newspaper clippings, NASA handouts, and astronaut photos. It made little sense to pack them in my duffle with my bug spray and baseball mitt and other summer camp gear, but I knew that the landing would be special, the greatest event of my lifetime, of all of human history as far as I was concerned at age 13. I wanted to be prepared.

As the moment approached, a little past 10 p.m. that night, the counselor in charge of television reception concluded he would just have to stand and hold the antenna throughout the broadcast. Even then, the images we got from the surface of the moon were murky. But they were from the surface of the moon! And in a way, we could make out the shadowy image of Neil Armstrong as he bounced down the ladder on the lunar module and paused for a moment before settling his boot into the grey dust of the lunar surface. His line about "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" echoed for a moment, a quarter million miles from where it was uttered, up against the white rafters of the lodge.

And then most of the room turned away, back to their games. Ever over-serious, I wrote down his words as if others might not do so. And soon, I was the only one still sitting in front of the television watching, a fact that did not enhance my image at a camp where open wounds and nights spent tied to a gravestone at the local cemetery were the way to win respect.

Walking on the moon was a promise fulfilled. To my adolescent self, it was just the latest in the seemingly endless stream of developments that confirmed that we were living in the greatest country on Earth at the greatest moment in history. Mars could not be far behind. And flying cars, of course. And jetpacks.

Reading the obituaries of Neil Armstrong this weekend, I was struck that such faith in boundless breakthroughs was not just a fanboy's fantasy. Armstrong himself said he had believed we would continue to build on the remarkable achievements of the Apollo program. "There are," he said, "places to go beyond belief."

But it didn't happen. The manned space program is on hiatus without apparent end. We send robots to Mars and into deep space, but popular support for space exploration has faded away. Armstrong, a quiet engineer and former naval aviator who remarkably maintained his privacy despite having been one of the most famous men in the world, lamented this too, lending his voice to calls for better funding for NASA. But for all he did, for all the energy the space program provided to America and the U.S. economy, his entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Thinking of Armstrong in the days after his death, of what he achieved and what it symbolized, throws the pallid, visionless national conversation of our day into stark relief.  The soaring optimism and grand vision John F. Kennedy sketched out when he set the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade seems farther away from today's name-calling and hollow battles over motives than the outer reaches of our solar system. The debate, and our so-called leaders, have become earthbound in every respect.

It is possible to understand this in the context of America's financial morass, but that is only part of the story and an insufficient excuse for the failure to conjure or cultivate great dreams. More damning than the failure to limn grand ideas -- because that happens from time to time -- is our unwillingness to commit to them with what it takes to bring them to fruition. This is especially true when it comes to those notions that require the forces and resources that made the space program great: a transcendent belief in science and engineering and the power of rigorously applied human knowledge.

The space program was the crowning achievement of centuries of scientific enlightenment that began roughly with Newton in the 17th century. It was a celebration of what scientific knowledge could make possible. Of math. Of computing. Of aeronautical engineering. Of countless branches of the sciences that today are regularly not only ignored by our so-called leaders but frequently denigrated by them, dismissed, or rendered secondary to childish superstition, cant, and prejudice.

How hard must it have been for a man like Armstrong to listen and watch as the country lurched from hailing scientific achievement as the ultimate affirmation of the American spirit to denying evolution, climate science, and the importance of exploring the universe in which we live. How difficult must it have been for a generation of slide rule-wielding heroes to listen as we made excuses for our children so that their failures at science and math were papered over rather than addressed, as we slipped behind other countries not just with our space program but even when it came to delivering the basic educational building blocks that are the prerequisites for training new generations of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and astronauts.

But we haven't just lost touch with the spirit embodied by Kennedy and Armstrong and the late Sally Ride. We live in an era in which we have let religious fundamentalism and extremism gain such a powerful role in our political discourse that mainstream politicians in both parties regularly kowtow to the foolishness of preachers and know-nothings who see knowledge as a threat to their fragile philosophies. It's not a new phenomenon. Galileo saw it too. But you would have thought, now into the second decade of the 21st century, we would be past all that.

Listen to the airwaves, and you will hear ads accusing President Obama of waging a war against religion. But do you hear similar outrage over the war that religious and political extremists in the United States are waging against science, against math, and even against history -- against all facts that don't jibe with right-wing political ideology? Those wars are not just against the spirit of Armstrong and the space program but against the spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and the IT Revolution and progress itself. But few candidates dare speak out. When GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman tweeted, "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," this prosaic sentiment was treated as a transcendent, even daring thing to say. (And it was followed shortly after by his crushing defeat in the primaries.)

Don't expect any Huntsman moments during the GOP convention this week, even as climate change stirs up hurricanes and droughts and we receive new reports that Arctic ice has shrunk to record lows, even as we have Senate candidates spewing offensive, nonsensical notions about how the female body works. Candidates will embrace religion as seldom before. (For examples, see the Tanenbaum* Center for Interreligious Understanding's tracking of religious statements by all our candidates this election year for an accounting of the creeping expansion of religion into our national discourse.) But listen for a defense of the science and math that have been hallmarks of American greatness since Franklin and Jefferson and you will hear the sound of the nonexistent wind that blew around that motionless flag Neil Armstrong planted on the lunar surface back in 1969.

After the historic broadcast wrapped up that July night, I went out and sat at the end of the dock. I looked at the moon reflected on the water and high above me and imagined Armstrong and Aldrin there, sitting in the Eagle that had landed at Tranquility Base. It was thrilling not just because of what we had achieved but because of where we might go: All those places Armstrong imagined that were "beyond belief." Little did I realize that a few decades later the space program and America would be struggling once again even to dream of new horizons.

We've been grounded by our fiscal fecklessness, to be sure. But we have also allowed ourselves to be drawn into a "values" debate rather than one about what is really valuable to us as a nation. What we feel in our hearts is important, but we cannot afford to leave our heads out of the equation. The lesson of Armstrong and his peers is that there is no such thing as faith-based progress. For that reason, a precondition for any future success America might enjoy is to fight back hard against those who deny science: By subordinating its truths, we subordinate ourselves.

*Correction, Aug. 28, 2012: The original version of this article misspelled the name of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. (Return to the corrected text.)
Minor typos and punctuation errors have also been corrected.

courtesy of NASA

National Security

How to Solve All of America’s Problems in a Single Step

A modest proposal for preventing the elderly of an impoverished America from being a burden on their children or country and for making them beneficial to the public.

It is sadly apparent to those who travel this great country -- when they see along the highways aging bikers with long grey ponytails or on the beaches men who are long past the age when they should be seen in Speedos or at political rallies, where they quake in fear over competing claims about retirement benefits -- that the elderly are not only an eyesore but a growing threat to our society because of their cost, the speed at which they drive, and because, absent real work to do or support from their impoverished government, they could easily turn to crime or worse, turn to us, their relatives, and seek to move into our basements or family rooms.

I think it is agreed by all Americans that this prodigious number of burdensome old folks visible to all as they conduct their morning mall walks or take up valuable bench space in public parks are, given the present deplorable state of the nation, a source of great unease, debate, and public dissension and therefore whoever could find a fair, cheap and easy method of making these chronologically challenged Americans sound and useful members of the commonwealth would earn the gratitude of the public to such a degree that he would have a statue erected in his honor or possibly have his bust added to those on Mount Rushmore.

But my intention is far from being limited to providing for the admittedly not overly long futures of our senior citizens. It is my goal to also address a number of the other urgent issues facing the United States. Among these are the financial crisis that threatens to bring our country to its knees, the divisive political debate that has rendered our government dysfunctional, and the need to find ways to provide for our public defense and national security while living within our means.

The great advantage to my program is that it is instantly apparent to anyone who hears it described, even those with profound intellectual deficits like reality-show contestants and members of Congress, that it solves not only the greatest problem the country faces -- that of ensuring care for the elderly -- but that it does so instantly and in such a sweeping nature that it might once again reknit the rent fabric of our polity and restore unity to a fractured, hurting society. It does so in a way that will also eliminate the need to resort to commonly contemplated alternative approaches to addressing the plight of the aging including placing them on ice floes, sending them to python-infested streets of Florida, or providing them with health-care vouchers that aren't worth the paper they might be printed on. I am also able to rule out the approach suggested in 1729 by Dr. Jonathan Swift in his "A Modest Proposal," which recommended that to deal with a similar over abundance of unwanted people, in that case poor children, that the surplus population of grubby little kids be eaten and, where possible, their skins turned into "admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen."

My program draws on our history and reinstates one of America's most venerated national programs while, at the same time, drawing equally on the ideas, priorities and programs of our political mothers and fathers, the Democratic and Republican parties.   The aforementioned program is the draft, a nationwide program of conscription, and my proposal is that we institute mandatory military service for all Americans over 65 years of age.

Can you think of a single proposal that so directly addresses the shared concerns of an aging nation for its oldest citizens while at the same time guaranteeing the public care for those seniors sought by Democrats and providing for the strengthened national defense so important to all Republicans? One that helps trim our fiscal deficit and eliminate the retirement health-care deficit altogether? One that could end the brief and unwelcome outbreak of substantive debate about the nuts and bolts of massive government programs and allow us to return to the character assassination and discussions of hair-care regimes and hunting techniques that we prefer to dwell on during election campaigns?

Because I have digressed from enumerating the merits of my proposal for too long, I will return to the central purpose of this essay. I think the advantages of the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.

First, as I have already observed, this approach would immediately place our elderly into the care of the government. Not only would it do this but it would do so via an institution, the military, which is accustomed to providing for every need of its members and has a long history of putting into productive use those whom age also renders nearly impossible to deal with: teenagers.

Second, because every older American would be in the military, we would actually have no need at all for Medicare. Not only would this eliminate the threat posed by the unfathomably large deficit associated with it but, as this is also the greatest threat extant to America's wellbeing, it would thereby strengthen the country in ways achievable by no other current or contemplated program of the Department of Defense or the military contractors it serves.

Third, because the nature of modern warfare is increasingly limited to electronic, cyber, drone-based or other joystick-driven activities, the physical limitations of many older Americans should not be a problem. Indeed, it is possible -- though many American businessmen seem to discount this possibility -- that the experience of these older folks might be of some use. For example, if our military were as adept at the elderly at devoting their time to shouting at the television or spending hours trying to set the clock on their DVRs, there would be less time to fight wars and thus costs would be further reduced. (Which is not to say they would not be ready to fight. If my relatives are any indication, the elderly are capable of being every bit as hostile as the generations that followed them.)

Fourth, because it is unavoidable that conflicts do occur, were we to field an army of the elderly, we would eliminate war's greatest tragedy: the untimely death of the young who have historically been called upon to fight. This would have the added benefit of significantly reducing the health-care and Social Security costs these honored dead might otherwise have incurred, especially those associated with the last six months of life, which, with some luck, these protectors of our nation would avoid altogether. It would also be a fairly easy matter to reduce the costs associated with this program further simply by increasing the demands made on inductees during basic training, which could take place at or near national cemeteries to reduce shipping costs associated with burials.  And the increasingly heavy burdens of our Veteran's Administration, caring for wounded soldiers for decades after they were discharged, would disappear given that both these soldiers are less likely to survive their wounds and, in any case, would not live that much longer even if they were healthy.

Fifth, if our politicians are as reckless about entering into overseas entanglements as they have been throughout history, the thinning out of the ranks of our seniors would have the added benefit of resetting the balance between younger, working members of society contributing to social programs and the number of older citizens drawing upon them.

Sixth, it is of course, assumed that the rich would find ways to exempt themselves from these programs and thus there would be sufficient numbers of civilian elderly to play necessary social roles in television dramas, serve as department-store Santas and ensuring that the grandchildren of the rich are spoiled as they deserve to be.

Many other advantages to this program can be enumerated. For example, it would get aging drivers off the roads, enhancing the safety and speed by which others are able to go about their daily business. Further, armies of other, more humane nations (and virtually all others on the planet clearly revere the elderly more than we do given the evidence associated with the current debate on Medicare and the unwillingness of either party to actually address the real underlying issues associated with it) would be less inclined to shoot at or harm our long, grey lines of battlefield troops. This would more than make up for any disadvantages associated with their feebleness, incontinence, or inability to remember where they put their keys. Similarly, programs like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would be rendered unnecessary, as most members of the military won't remember what the question was in the first place.

Supposing that there are 40 million Americans over the age of 65, and 48 million on Medicare, this would clearly both largely remove the problems associated with that failing program and, at the same time, provide a large pool of people for military service. While there are currently 73 million people between the ages of 18 and 49 and thus eligible for military service, it must be remembered that a draft would bring far more people into service than the approximately 2.25 million Americans in active or reserve service today. This would satisfy those in the Republican Party who, despite the absence of any threat to U.S. security comparable to those of the 20th century, are always seeking to vastly increase our armed forces. It would also please them by constituting those forces with people for whom their nostalgic, Cold War-era policies seem fresh and contemporary. And it would satisfy budget hawks, because we would actually be getting some public service in exchange for the money paid to the elderly instead of the current Medicare arrangement which regrettably contains no mandatory work arrangement.

Given the obvious merits of such a program, I think it is fair to ask that no man or woman take issue with it unless he or she has a superior idea. Much like Dr. Swift, I am "not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual." Also, I want to point out, like Swift before me, that "I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work." I just don't have that many elderly relatives. My parents were only children and one of them is already dead. The other, my mother, is by temperament and energies, well-suited to military service. As for me, I will be eligible for such a program far too soon but am willing to undertake it despite the risks and inconvenience it might pose, as I was planning to move south anyway when I got older and given the sad state of affairs our political leaders have left us in, I'm not sure living outside military bases will be safe in America for much longer. As for my wife, she is much younger and likely to move to Canada or somewhere in the Yucatan after I die.

John Moore/Getty Images