June 22, 2014

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side of the Universe

For most of my life, I've lived in a succession of small to medium-sized rural university towns. While I wouldn't recommend the quiet college town life to adrenalin junkies, there are much, much worse places to be. The population is better educated than the norm, crime is low, and even a middling university will attract the theaters, events, restaurants, cafes, book stores, artisans and the like that elevate life from merely tolerable to interesting and pleasurable.

On the downside, there is a depressing sameness to the rural college town. My hometowns have been overwhelmingly white and middle class. While professing to be open-minded and tolerant, university people can often be as insular and judgmental as the population at large. And diversity tends to be more about rhetoric than actual achievement.

After 14 years at yet another smallish, relatively remote university town, we made the move to The Big City. While it wasn't much of a move in terms of distance, my old and new homes might as well be on different planets.

San Francisco Peaks
My old home town.
The old home town is flanked by a picturesque mountain range and surrounded by a beautiful national forest. There are more outdoor attractions -- awesome national parks, monuments, hiking trails, ski resorts, rock formations, etc. -- within a day's drive than you can shake a walking stick at. It's a magnet for mountain bikers, hikers, skiers, hippies old and new, cowboys, tourists and outdoorsy people of every description.

My new home is a jarring contrast. On the surface, it's all about the great indoors of hotels, resorts, casinos, bars, clubs, outlet malls, strip malls, and every kind of entertainment imaginable. It's a magnet for hustlers, gamblers, entrepreneurs, show people (real and wannabe), voracious consumers, itinerants and dreamers. It's not a place for "real" people to live.

But underneath the tacky veneer there's a lot to like about the place. For those seeking refuge from coarse materialism, there are beautiful parks and lakes, walking and hiking trails, recreational facilities, nature preserves, museums and countless other options. (Not to mention, a large number of smaller, independently or family-owned shops and restaurants for the discriminating consumer.)

You want diversity? This place walks the walk. Spend any time here, and you'll experience dozens of languages, nationalities, ethnicities and religions. You're definitely not in Kansas anymore. This city over the rainbow is brought to you in glorious technicolor.

But since moving here, we have experienced the "grass is always greener" syndrome up close and personal. It's become a running joke. We chat with a local -- a neighbor, a co-worker, a repairman, a store clerk, etc. -- and tell them that we've recently moved from _____________ . The response is invariably the same. "Oh, I love _____________ ! It's so green, so beautiful! I visited there a few weeks/months/years ago [or] I have a brother/sister/aunt/uncle/cousin/friend who lives there/used to live there. Nice, nice place." Then there's always the awkward pause. Sometimes it's just a look, sometimes they come right out with it: "Why in the world would you want to give up all that and move here?"

Mars landscape, NASA/JPL
The grass is definitely not greener here.
Often we just let it go, but occasionally we feel the need to explain ourselves. The town we came from is indeed great, and we enjoyed our time there. But it is also remote, small and expensive. Need a good medical specialist? You drive 2 1/2 hours to the valley. Need to try on a decent pair of shoes? 2 1/2 hours. Need to fly somewhere? 2 1/2 hours to the airport. Want to see something other than a blockbuster at the theater? At least 2 1/2 hours to the nearest place showing that independent/foreign film.

The disbelieving big city locals have convinced themselves that almost any place is better than here. What's not to like about the slower pace and quiet of a small town surrounded by so much natural beauty, where neighbors are friendly and know each other? (Truth is, neighbors tend not to have much to do with each other in small towns either. It's the curse of our atomized, electronics-and-mobile-device-crazy culture.)

My wife and I particularly appreciate the ready access to the cornucopia of entertainment, dining and culture that the Big City offers. Since we both travel for work and pleasure, it's nice to have a major airport that's twenty minutes away instead of several hours. And to top it off, we're still pretty close to some of the great national parks and scenic places that make the American West such an attraction.

NASA concept art - alien landscape
No green grass here either. Hey, let's plant some!
Yep, the grass is nice and green here, so to speak. We feel very fortunate. So it's hard for us to understand the urgent need felt by some of our new neighbors and co-workers to get out Dodge at the earliest opportunity. But then, we were feeling the same way about our old home town. One person's green grass is another's weeds. Sometimes, you've just gotta make the leap.

The "grass is always greener / happy feet" syndrome can be formless, chaotic, almost a panic-reaction, but it can also give us the kick in the pants we need to improve our lives. Time was, much of humanity didn't just have itchy feet for that better place over the horizon, they looked up to the stars and thought about literal new worlds to explore and colonize.

Long, long ago at the beginning of the space age, there was natural anxiety about nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, but there was also excitement and hope that the very same technology that could deliver a warhead to a city could also deliver people to other planets. Earth was pretty much used up, at least as far as new frontiers to explore. At his inaugural address, President Kennedy described a nation on the edge of a new frontier,
"the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."
He intuited that societies that don't challenge themselves, that don't keep wondering if the grass could maybe be just a tad bit greener, often fall into stagnation and despair.  Since all the rest of the "frontiers" -- war and peace, ignorance and prejudice and wealth and poverty -- were too amorphous and insoluble, he at least got the nation going on landing a man on the moon.

Explorer I on the launch pad - history.nasa.gov
Have we lost the will to explore?
The New Frontier reached its apogee in pop culture with Star Trek's exhortation to "seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before..." The original series debuted at the same time the US was pulling away from the Soviets in the space race, rapidly learning how to dock spacecraft in preparation for sending men and machines beyond earth orbit. During those heady days, it was easy to believe we'd soon be hurling starships at warp speeds across the galaxy.

Today, the will to challenge ourselves in this unique way has collapsed, exploded on the launch pad as it were. I won't go into detail here about why I think it's still vitally important to try -- see my post on Ikarie XB-1 for the arguments. Suffice it to say that with global ecological catastrophe looming, our ability to travel and live beyond the earth may be essential to humanity's survival.

But it seems that we're too self-centered, too self-satisfied, too interested in micromanaging everyone else's affairs around the world to turn our eyes back to the stars. On my optimistic days, I think it's maybe a 50/50 proposition that a human being will ever again travel beyond earth orbit. On my bad days, I imagine that in a couple of generations (if we survive as a species), the history of human space flight will be forgotten, or at best treated as a myth.

Very little sci-fi these days involves space flight or discovery. The eternal optimism of Star Trek has been supplanted by earth-bound, apocalyptic stories of small surviving bands of humans fighting against zombies or alien invaders or themselves. It's as if we realize as a society that the age of challenging ourselves and exploring is over for good, and all that's left is hunkering down and trying to survive a hardscrabble existence. Even if the grass is greener somewhere else, we don't have the will or the means to check it out.

So perhaps I can be excused for being nostalgic about a time when we still had the will as a society to explore the unknown, and every kid who went to the movies just knew that someday soon we'd be landing people on Mars, and then looking for the next planet to explore. The following very selective list is a salute to the men and women of the movies who were inspired by the dawn of the space age, and who in turn fired the imaginations of kids like me with their creations. (And of course, the people who gave so much of themselves to develop real-world space programs.)

Poster - It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
Pioneering space missions that bring back really bad stuff

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
"It's coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?"

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
"Out-Of-Space Creature Invades the Earth!"

The Flame Barrier (1958)
"The First Satellite That Returned To Earth...And The Hell It Brought With It"

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
"IT! ... Reaches through space! ... Scoops up men and women! ... Gorges on blood!"

Night of the Blood Beast (1958)
"No girl was safe as long as this head-hunting thing roamed the land!"

Space Master X-7 (1958)
"Satellite Terror Strikes The Earth!"

First Man into Space (1959)
"First motion picture to lift the veil, forsee the future in a spectacular drama of the first man in history to be rocketed into the terrifying unknown of outer space!"

Queen of Blood (1966)

Poster - Destination Moon (1950)
Arrogant, irritating aliens trying to prevent us from exploring space

War of the Satellites (1958)
"LIFE magazine says, 'The ultimate in scientific monsters!'"

The Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960)
"Aliens attempt to sabotage the U.S. space program."

Pioneering Missions to the Moon

Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond; 1929)
"'Never' does not exist for the human mind... only 'Not yet.'"

Destination Moon (1950)
"I want to do this job because it's never been done. Because I don't know. It's research, it's pioneering." - Jim Barnes

Victorian missions to the Moon

Poster - First Men in the Moon (1964)
From the Earth to the Moon (1958)
"The Amazing Story of the Boldest Adventure Dared by Man!"

First Men in the Moon (1964)
"H.G. Wells' Astounding Adventure in Dynamation!"

Missions to the Moon to discover space babes, giant spiders and other assorted space wonders

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
"Love-starved moon maidens on the prowl!"

Missile to the Moon (1958)
"Lunar She-Devils Lure Earthmen Into Their Lair of Doom!"

12 to the Moon (1960)
"Ride the Excitement Orbit to the Moon with the First Space Explorers!"

Missions to Mars to discover space babes, giant spiders, etc.

Rocketship X-M (1950)
"The Most Astounding SPACE ADVENTURE of All Time!"

Poster - The Angry Red Planet (1959)
Flight to Mars (1951)
"The Most Fantastic Expedition Ever Conceived by Man!"

The Angry Red Planet (1959)
"Spectacular Adventure Beyond Time and Space"

Missions to Venus to discover space babes, giant spiders, etc., etc.

Queen of Outer Space (1958)
"Mankind's first fantastic flight to Venus - the female planet!"

First Spaceship on Venus (1960)
"You are there... on man's most incredible journey!"

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)
"The next space goal is about to be reached - the first landing on the planet Venus."

Missions to other planets with space babes, bug-eyed monsters, etc., etc., etc.

Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)
"You're in Space beyond Space."

Poster - The Phantom Planet (1961)
Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956)
"Out of This World SHOCK SENSATION!"

Missions that go seriously off-course

World Without End (1956)
"CinemaScope's First Science-Fiction Thriller Hurls You into the Year 2508!"

The Phantom Planet (1961)
"Captives of a power far, far out!"

Missions to the stars

This Island Earth (1955)
"Two mortals trapped in outer space... challenging the unearthly furies of an outlaw planet gone mad!"

Forbidden Planet (1956)
"Earthmen on a fabulous, peril-journey into outer space!"

Ikarie XB-1 (Voyage to the End of the Universe; 1963)
"SEE: The Unbelievable secret at the end of the Universe!"

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills..." - John F. Kennedy