This past Saturday, my sister and I were hiking Fifth Avenue toward F.A.O. Schwarz when we spotted a place with even more toys and games: the main branch of the New York Public Library. We stopped and took notice.
We ascended the large, marble stairs, a lion to our left and a lion to our right. We passed an exhibit on “Candide at 250: Scandal and Success” and continued up a new flight of stairs, stopping once we could ascend no higher.
We began our tour of the second floor in the large, wood-paneled reading rooms. It was packed. We observed the art — beautiful, portraits of American leaders and landscapes — and the people — what they were learning, who was using one of the laptops the library loans out, who was procrastinating (or doing research on?) Facebook. My sister asked me about microfilm, the conversation jumped to Google Books and I worried the scene would soon be a relic of an analog age.
We charged ahead. The research rooms in the library are locked, but each has a doorbell. If you ring, a researcher will escort you into the home of a 20th-century financier with a penchant for English Romanticism or guide you through pictures of the Spencer Collection’s Japanese scrolls.
We traversed the halls and then descended the mighty ziggurat only to find ourselves in front of the main attraction — an exhibit entitled “Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009.”
We entered. 1609 marks the year Henry Hudson discovered “New Amsterdam.” Cartographic maps, of varying quality and dazzling beauty line the walls and fill the cases of the exhibit. Most were created by explorers charting the unknown. The exhibit is a testament to greatness of the explorer — the bravery, intelligence and strength necessary to go where none has gone before. As I looked from map to map, my sister asked me, “Where have all the explorers gone?”
The answer to this question ought to be space, “The Final Frontier,” and it was for a while. With a flag, a treasure chest and a bible, man chartered the known world, went West until he reached the east, searched South until land gave way to ocean. Then he fought over it. Not even our atmosphere could contain the conflict.
During the height of the Cold War, following Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space and the first to orbit the earth, we were propelled into a “space race” against the Soviet Union. President Kennedy tasked us with “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” before the Russians accomplished the same goal. Neil Armstrong landed seven years later.
Over the past 40 years following what was meant to be “one giant leap for mankind,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been a bumbling, incompetent and uninspired institution, which is to say that it is a federal bureaucracy. But the issue is less NASA’s ineptitude — though the organization’s failure to convert inches to meters was unfortunate — than the inability of our leaders to set a mission or inspire.
America will soon no longer have the shuttles to launch a manned mission. Yesterday, the space shuttle Endeavor blasted off on a 13-day trip to install the last two main pieces of the International Space Station. But its mission represents the beginning of the end of an era of American space exploration. Last week, President Obama told NASA to abandon its mission to return to the moon in favor of a variety of much smaller objectives like building more robots. What happened?
Today’s Henry Hudson or Hiram Bingham does not work at NASA. She is studying free-market economics on a Fulbright Scholarship in the Czech Republic or teaching theater in Argentina. He is a stockbroker in Hong Kong or a consultant in Dubai. Or, if, as a friend of mine suggests, intellectual horizons have supplanted geographic ones, then she is a theoretical physicist, inspired by Armstrong to spend her life discovering new theories rather than new planets.
Even with all of space left to discover, our generation’s desire to explore has been wasted. It’s been lost to era where “make no mistake” has supplanted by the “New Frontier” as the catchphrase of a nation. In his Rice Stadium Moon Speech, Kennedy said that we choose to go to the moon and explore not because it is easy but because it is hard, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” When Obama speaks of ambition and challenge, it’s of getting members of Congress to speak to one another.
After we left the library, my sister and I reached F.A.O. Schwarz. It was here I saw a giant spaceship, tucked behind a stuffed Dora the Explorer and remembered that little boys and girls dream of being astronauts. In the last 50 years we have failed to make fulfilling these imaginations a national priority. Burdened by war and recession we now stand at a crossroads: We can dream big and do what is hard, or ask again in 40 years, “Where have all the explorers gone?”
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.