Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Reading

Going to the Moon…in fiction and film — Long before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 40 years ago tomorrow, writers have been going there for centuries.

They flew to the Moon in rocket ships, winged chariots and projectiles fired from huge guns. There they met giants, insect-men, Nazis and topless women.

Although pre-1969 stories of lunar voyages were often silly or satirical, Frederick I. Ordway III, a former NASA researcher, argues that they played a critical role in inspiring the scientists who actually put men on the Moon.

“They all read H. G. Wells and Jules Verne,” Mr. Ordway said recently. “Science fiction got us all started in the early days, I think without exception.”

Growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the 1930s Mr. Ordway devoured science-fiction pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, some 900 of which he would later donate to the Harvard College Library. In the 1940s he was a student member of the American Rocket Society, a space enthusiasts’ organization that built and test-fired small rockets in New York and New Jersey.

After graduating from Harvard in 1949 with a degree in geosciences, Mr. Ordway went to work for Reaction Motors, which built engines for the X-1 and X-15 experimental rocket planes. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s he worked in Huntsville, Ala., with the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and then at the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.

In 1965, at the author Arthur C. Clarke’s suggestion, the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick hired Mr. Ordway as the scientific consultant on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Mr. Ordway has also written and edited more than two dozen books about spaceflight real and imagined.

He said that the earliest known Moon voyage in written history is by the satirist Lucian of Samosata of the second century A.D. Lucian begins his “True History” with a disclaimer that it’s all lies. He goes on to describe sailing on a ship that’s carried to the Moon by a giant waterspout. He finds the Moon inhabited by men who ride three-headed vultures and giant fleas, and are at war with the inhabitants of the Sun.

More below the fold.

One Giant Leap to Nowhere — Tom Wolfe explains why we’ve lost our vision in space.

Forty years! For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by presidents and the Congress. They have so many more luscious and appealing projects that could make better use of the close to $10 billion annually the Mars program would require. There is another overture even at this moment, and it does not stand a chance in the teeth of Depression II.

“Why not send robots?” is a common refrain. And once more it is the late Wernher von Braun who comes up with the rejoinder. One of the things he most enjoyed saying was that there is no computerized explorer in the world with more than a tiny fraction of the power of a chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which is easily reproduced by unskilled labor.

What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.

July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.

The Jesus Trail — A Jewish businessman and an American Mennonite are helping Israeli pilgrims along a path through history and religion.

We ducked under barbed wire, waded through spiky milk thistle and slid down a hillside that was too steep to walk. I couldn’t help wondering: Is this what Jesus did?

My colleague Samuel Sockol and I were walking the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile trek that wanders from Nazareth in northern Israel through Arab villages, kibbutz farmland and some stunning landscape to the Sea of Galilee.

Inspired by Peru’s Inca Trail and the Camino de Santiago in Spain, both popular spots for global hikers, the Jesus Trail is being developed by Israeli entrepreneur Maoz Inon and his U.S. partner, David Landis, as a way to draw tourists out of buses and into the countryside.

The hope, they say, is to help businesses in more out-of-the-way places make money — and in the process make a bit themselves by coordinating guides, renting handheld GPS equipment to do-it-yourselfers and offering other services. Inon is also involved in a Nazareth guesthouse that provides a convenient base for travelers.

There’s a larger purpose as well, they say. Inon, who is Jewish, has focused on projects with Arab partners in Israeli Arab towns as a sort of peacemaking gesture; Landis, a Mennonite, also hopes the project will encourage understanding among faiths and cultures.

Some ‘Splaining To Do — Frank Rich on the Republicans from 1994 who grilled Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.

At least they didn’t refer to “Maria Sotomayor” as had Mike Huckabee, whose sole knowledge of Latinos apparently derives from “West Side Story.” But when Tom Coburn of Oklahoma merrily joked to Sotomayor that “You’ll have lots of ’splainin’ to do,” it clearly didn’t occur to him that such mindless condescension helps explain why the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation is bolting his party.

Coburn wouldn’t know that behind the fictional caricature Ricky Ricardo was the innovative and brilliant Cuban-American show-business mogul Desi Arnaz. As Lucie Arnaz, his and Lucille Ball’s daughter, told me last week, it always seemed unfair to her that those laughing at her father’s English usually lacked his fluency in two languages. Then again, Coburn was so unfamiliar with Jews he didn’t have a clear fix on what happened in the Holocaust until 1997, when he was 48. Party elders like Bill Bennett had to school him after he angrily berated NBC for subjecting children and “decent-minded individuals everywhere” to the violence, “full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity” of “Schindler’s List.”

The antediluvian political culture of Coburn and his peers, for all its roots in the race-baiting “Southern strategy” of the Nixon era, is actually of a more recent vintage. It dates back just 15 years, to what my Times colleague Sam Tanenhaus calls conservatism’s “most decadent phase” in his coming book “The Death of Conservatism.” This was the Newt Gingrich revolution, swept into Congress by the midterms of 1994. Its troops came armed with a reform agenda titled the “Contract With America” and a mother lode of piety. Their promises included an end to federal deficits, the restoration of national security, transparent (and fewer) House committees, and “a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.”

That the class of ’94 failed on almost every count is a matter of history, no matter how hard it has retroactively tried to blame its disastrous record on George W. Bush. Its incompetence may even have been greater than its world-class hypocrisy. Its only memorable achievements were to shut down the government in a fit of pique and to impeach Bill Clinton in a tsunami of moral outrage.


You’d think that Coburn’s got some ’splainin’ to do, but as Washington etiquette has it, we spent the week learning every last footnote about Sotomayor while acres of press coverage shed scant light on the shoddy records of those judging her. The public got the point anyway about this dying order and its tired racial and culture wars. With Sotomayor’s fate never in doubt, it changed the channel.

Doonesbury — Tweet tweet.