America Lands On Mars — And the Sadness of the 21st Century Becomes Clear

Another Sunday night and I’ve been drinking since noon. This time I was slurping bottomless Mimosas at a brunch joint by Port Authority in Manhattan. I know a guy who once worked this shift. He told me that he was scolded for pouring drinks with too much orange juice. Not because the place was angling for a reputation as a purveyor of strong drinks, but because, they told him, the orange juice cost more than the atrocious champagne — pardon me, “sparkling wine” — they slung into ever drink.

But for $16 of bottomless booze, why not?

12 hours after that brunch began I found myself embedded at a bar by Union Square that threw a party for the impending Mars landing. Given the release of a new Total Recall movie, I’d have expected it to be dubbed the “Get Your Ass To Mars” party. After Europe landed two rovers on the planet nearly 8 years ago, America decided not to be outdone and constructed an SUV sized rover to drop onto the surface of Mars. Yeah…Canyonero!

Professor Thom’s on this particular Sunday night was packed. I told my bartender that he’s crazy for hosting such a party. He said, “hey let’s go to Mars!” and I couldn’t help but agree completely. The bar was exactly what you’d get if Comic-Con fucked a Frat bar. Popped collars met a shirt declaring that they survived Pon Farr. One guy walked up to me and asked, “Where are we landing?” I told him “Mars” and he said, “yeah…they are just lying to us…they are totally on Uranus.” I laughed, knowing that the PATRIOT Act literally DID place the U.S. in my anus, but this kid ran away — telling me my “priorities are wrong” because I wasn’t running up on every adult version of Dora the Explorer and peddling “game.”

When I showed up at the bar, it was a model of traditional sporting spirit. The Olympics gleamed from every TV, showing America’s failure to capture Women’s Vault Gold. The Summer Olympics are a harsh reminder of a history lost — an era where we sublimated nuclear Holocaust by thrusting that geopolitical pressure of toe to toe nuclear combat on the backs of 4’10” teenaged girls who could jump. Makes sense.

Everyone watching the Olympics last night exhibited no control whatsoever over their national mission. Not only were we all placing our faith in children, every competition was completed and reported to us hours before NBC deigned to inform its audience in a smooth, packaged results program. But we watched anyway because even with zero control over the outcome, Americans crave the sense of fulfillment the Olympics provide, and have since the Cold War began.

Parallel to the Olympics, the Cold War judged its Superpowers in the Space Race. The image of collegians holding off the semi-Pro Soviet hockey team in 1980 is as indelible as the successful Moon landing in 1969 — proving that the Russians lacked that quantum of power that America could muster. Images of mission control and Olympic Gold defined the Cold War as much as combatants in a proxy conflict ever could.

The images of the Mars Curiosity landing juxtapose those Cold War images. As professional photographers and videographers captured the reactions of the multitude of scientists sitting in a luxurious mission control (not unlike the sports book at the MGM Grand), I could not help but remember that everyone in that room was 7 minutes from having any sway over the mission. It takes 7 minutes for a message to travel from Earth to the Mars Curiosity rover, and as I watched these scientists talk authoritatively into headsets, I could not forget that they could not change the outcome of the mission they launched almost a year earlier.

A picture perfect mission control

That’s when I recognized the dire circumstances of America. In the Cold War — a fake war thrust upon America — the inspiring visage of control was defined by spacious rooms of people who exuded confidence even while completely unable to impact the mission at hand. Neil Armstrong was seconds away from missing the Moon. And yet you would never know it from the mission control shots that dot our minds. The Curiosity rover banked on this image of quiet confidence and competence.

But in the War on Terror — the other fake (to the extent it is ill-defined) war thrust upon America –the image of control is defined by a cramped room of nervous people displaying resolve, and yet fear, at the same powerlessness over the outcome of a mission.

To win a Gold. To land on the Moon. To kill an international mass murderer. All beyond our control, and all symbols of the geopolitical landscape that defined the era.

When mission control received word that the Curiosity rover had safely touched ground, the bar erupted in applause. It was not unlike the response to President Obama’s declaration that Seal Team 6 had silenced the criminal at the top of every international Most Wanted list. But this was a joyful respite from the political realities of America in the 21st Century. A moment celebrating the capacity of a country to reach beyond the trappings of Earth and accomplish something in the name of humanity as opposed to celebrating a temporary respite in a decade of communal fear of fellow Earthlings.

I hope the future of America is defined by more trips to Mars.

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