Is the Era of American Optimism Dead?

Looking up at a clear, star packed sky I realized something last night. My entire life has been marked by optimism epitomized by America’s successful exploration of space. When I was five months old the Apollo 11 mission succeeded in answering late President Kennedy’s call and placed the first human being, American Neil Armstrong, on the surface of the moon. After this landing we did not stop, several more manned solid rocket missions were made before NASA finally upgraded our capacity with the introduction of the Space Shuttle program in 1981. Each successive launch from rocket to shuttle was an event and none went off without the full attention of not only the American public but every person on the planet. We watched in awe as year after year man reached for the stars lead and fueled by American optimism.

Of course not all of our missions were successful. There was Apollo 13 which nearly ended in tragedy were it not for the incredible efforts of the scientific minds at NASA. In 1986, when I was in the eleventh grade, I watched from my high school library along with hundreds of other students as the space shuttle Challenger exploded before our eyes. In 2000 we waited for an answer that never came from the Mars Polar Lander. And yet again on February 1, 2003, still reeling emotionally from the shock of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the American public saw the space shuttle Columbia break up on re-entry killing all aboard.

Even with these set-backs I never thought for a moment that we would give up. It was something we did as Americans. We pushed the envelope. We tried and succeeded at doing things no other nation could dream of. It was who we were and nothing would ever deter us.

That is until the turn of the 21st century.

In stark contrast to my life, my daughters life has been marked by terror, war and economic disaster. When she was two months old 19 hijackers flew jumbo jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. This event changed the face of our once proud nation in a way that I am not yet sure is fully clear. The shut-down of Wall Street in the days following the attacks accelerated the collapse of the tech bubble sending the nation into a recession that at the time looked bad in the extreme (until now of course). We engaged in two wars that have drained our treasury and are now faced with an economic recession which is crippling our ability to function as a once proud super power should.

Now, as my daughter turns ten years old this summer she will see the end of a glorious and storied run for American scientific dominance marked by our exploration of space. Yesterday began the final mission of the space shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to deliver a payload of parts, experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. This is the end of the line for the shuttle Discovery and it leaves us with only two remaining shuttle missions, STS-134 (Endeavour) and STS-135 (Atlantis), before the program is retired and manned missions of this kind are done for a least a couple generations. Instead of looking beyond the moon, NASA, crippled by a lack of funding due in large part to an economic collapse that began with those attacks on 9/11 is scaling back it’s efforts. We are reverting to the days of solid rocket boosters to get supplies into space.

I hope beyond hope that this is not the end of American optimism. The American dream has always had as it’s carrot at the end of the stick a goal of reaching for something no one else had ever imagined. We were the “new world,” of uncharted territory. We set out across the expanse of the continent not knowing what dangers would be befall us in order to push for new frontiers and find our American dream. Once our country was settled we pushed again and proved to the world that American ingenuity could create prosperity for millions through our manufacturing might. That drive sent us into space to do things no human could imagine were possible.

Now what? As our children fall behind in math and science, our aging infrastructure goes unattended and our once proud labor force is reduced to defending it’s right to exist, nay-sayers keep telling us that we can not afford to do the things we once did. People are being told to expect to sacrifice the American dream all while the wealth we created in the 20th century has been pilfered by corporations and the ownership class sitting at the top 1% of our population at the expense of the rest us.

Yesterday’s launch marks a critical juncture in our history. Will we rise to the occasion and shout down those that would have us give away our dreams or will we sit back and let them take the American dream and throw it all away. I for one do no want to see my daughter’s life marked by fear,  debt and diminished expectations. What is your choice?

2 Responses to “Is the Era of American Optimism Dead?”

  1. Randolph Carney says:

    The core of the 20th Century in the United States was built on shared sacrifice and working together. Early in the last century, the influence of unions and the start of government regulation over product safety and working conditions began to fuel an optimism that the future might indeed be better. This prevailing attitude brought Americans together during the privations of the Great Depression, which in some way affected every individual; a widespread call for government to save our economy gave our country many of the social programs we take for granted today. The idea of working together for the common good lasted into the latter part of the 20th century, extending into civil rights for minorities and a general reaching out across social and economic barriers of all kinds.

    Toward the end of the 20th century, this attitude began a dramatic reversal. Short-term profit became far more important than social values. An “us-versus-them” mentality began to create new and deep divisions in our society. And a philosophy of “ME, FIRST!” has begun to replace the concept of shared sacrifice for the good of all Americans.

    What we are witnessing is the unraveling of the social order which has prevailed in this country for more than a century. Compassion for the unfortunate is being replaced with an attitude of “they don’t deserve our help”. And middle-class workers – whose spending is being depended upon to fuel our economy – are being told that they make too much money to compete in the world marketplace, while increasingly wealthy health insurance companies turn more and more of our former take-home pay into profit for their shareholders.

    It can be extremely hard to be optimistic when so many of us are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy, at the same time our take-home pay is stagnant while what it costs to live continues to increase in ways not adequately captured by statistics. Meanwhile, we are constantly bombarded with attacks on those who are less fortunate, or who may look or sound a little different than use; there, but for the grace of God, goes every single one of us.

    How can we be optimistic as a country while our society becomes increasingly selfish and fragmented?

  2. NickFromGermantown says:

    I think the difference is that you are older, have a greater breadth of understanding, and are more cynical now. Add in some romanticizing about a time you didn’t fully experience or fully understand and that might make the difference.

    The more I learn as I get older is that we as people don’t change. Our romanticizing and idealizing the past in many cases is due to our lack of understanding. I’m sure the past was great, but I really doubt that it was so radically different than many people would like to make it out to be.

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