Paul Vallely: What happened to our vision of progress?

The cheese-paring revealed in Nasa is the new norm. A cost-benefit world of bean-counting

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When a chunk of foam, the weight of a bag of sugar, broke off the space shuttle
Columbia just 82 seconds after lift-off and smashed into the spacecraft's left wing at 530mph, it did more than tear a hole which would later rip the craft apart as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven on board. It ripped a hole which revealed something forlorn in our collective psyche too.

When a chunk of foam, the weight of a bag of sugar, broke off the space shuttle Columbia just 82 seconds after lift-off and smashed into the spacecraft's left wing at 530mph, it did more than tear a hole which would later rip the craft apart as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, killing all seven on board. It ripped a hole which revealed something forlorn in our collective psyche too.

Of course the most disturbing thing about yesterday's report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was the mental image it conjured of those seven astronauts' final terror-filled minute. But what was responsible for that was not a chunk of foam so much as the institutional culture of the US space agency Nasa; insulation pieces had been falling off and hitting the craft for years and no one had bothered.

Yet it also tells us something disquieting on a far wider level. When it began, in the final four decades of the last century, the space race spoke to something which was best in the human spirit. Of course, it was a preposterous burning-up of precious resources which could have been spent helping the starving people of Africa, or perhaps it was India in those days (though we also knew that if the cash hadn't been spent in space, then Africa or India was the least likely place it would have been channelled). And, of course, we also knew that the real point about the space race was to prove the scientific - and therefore, somehow, the moral - superiority of the West over the Soviets.

But we also knew that the conquest of space was not some utilitarian calculation, even if people did afterwards try to justify it by insisting that without the space race the rest of us wouldn't have Velcro where our buttons once were or Teflon on our non-stick pans. It was a reflection of the self-certainty of the Sixties. David Frost reminded me of that again recently in his lament for the passing of the Concorde. It seems extraordinarily Luddite, he said, and very unlike our vision of progress, to have a plane which can get you across the Atlantic in three hours and to scrap it and replace it with nothing.

The key phrase there is "our vision of progress". For that is what is at stake here. When Concorde was built in 1969 it may have made a lot of noise and couldn't carry enough fuel for longer journeys but twice-the-speed-of-sound represented the cutting edge of technical sophistication in those days before the hand-held calculator had been developed.

And it represented something more fundamental. It was a celebration. It was pure science, pure joy, it was art. It was a sense that to get the best you had to spend wildly. It was a reflection of the prodigality of nature which produces fruit and seeds in far greater abundance than is necessary. It was about all the experiments that didn't turn into anything, all the big bangs that didn't happen. It was about doing the profligate thing because that was what was right, or just because it addressed the human spirit or sense of playfulness. It was a time of boom and optimism, of the white heat of technology, of a sense that progress was possible in the world. By halving journey times Concorde would, ipso facto, be a major contributor to world peace and understanding. It was not just that this was a time of plenty and that it cost little to say that no cost would be spared. Rather we were like Christopher Columbus setting off boldly, despite others' certainty that he would fall off the edge of the world. Whatever the cost we were doing it because it proved that human beings are transcendent creatures. The space race became a symbol of our sense that the world is not enough. To boldly go.

Fast forward to today and you find that our postmodern world is much shrunken. There has been a shift in our intellectual framework and a shaking of our sense of self-confidence. This is the down-turn era, where ideology is driven by a very different kind of economics. Where science is applied, and art is justified by its link to education or social policy or to forging links between nations. Where our idea of a prestige project is not one which produces moral uplift but rather a feel-good injection. Not Concorde, but the Millennium Dome or the London Eye - theme-park second-hand vicarious pleasures. This new age is more subject to unnatural terrors, about al-Qa'ida or self-doubt. In the post-modern era the idea of progress has all but gone. Ours is a post-optimistic age, or even a post-humanistic one.

Who is the hero of the day? One Philip John from Bridgend who at the weekend became the world champion at bog snorkelling. Presumably he did it because it was there and yet there is about his achievement a lack of cutting-edgeness. We are somehow not convinced that swimming through a 100-yard channel of revolting slime has become the ultimate challenge for humankind. Even in our irony-laden times.

Once we were in the gutter, but looking up at the stars. Today, even at the edge of human possibility, the cheese-paring revealed in Nasa is the new norm. We live in a cost-benefit world of bean-counting which diminishes us all and where bad values are driving out good. Today it is the accountants who have the passionate intensity and the rest of us who lack all conviction. We are in the mud and looking down, snorkelling for dear life.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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