Space vs race: President Obama might be directing his gaze towards Mars, but there’s no escaping challenges closer to home


Click to follow
The Independent Online

If only governing America, Barack Obama must be thinking, were as leisurely and straightforward as exploring space. True, a valve malfunction delayed today’s planned test flight of the Orion spacecraft that, more than a decade from now, is intended to take astronauts to Mars. But mere technical problems can be ironed out; the launch will take place very soon, perhaps as early as Friday. Here on Earth, however, as the leader of the world’s most powerful country is learning – and not for the first time – human problems are much tougher to solve.

A presidency that began almost six years ago amid so much hope is on the edge of unravelling. Last month’s midterm elections reduced Democratic strength in Congress to one of its lowest points in a century. Mr Obama’s signature achievement, healthcare reform, is under constant assault on Capitol Hill and in the courts. Bitter controversy envelops his attempts to overhaul the broken US immigration system. And then there is America’s original sin, race.

At first glance, the election of the first black president suggested that the US was entering a post-racial era, but events in Ferguson, Missouri, and now New York have wrecked such illusions. There may be sound legal reasons why separate grand juries have decided that no charges be brought against white police officers who killed two black suspects: Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. But to the uninitiated, the officers’ actions in both cases seem grossly disproportionate; an impression has been created that black lives do not matter. Outrage in the black community is at a level not seen since the acquittal in 1992 of police officers over the savage beating of the black motorist Rodney King, provoking deadly riots in Los Angeles.

Mr Obama’s reaction, as in other issues he has faced, has been oddly passive. He urges greater trust between police and ordinary citizens, and more accountability for the former. Yet critics complain that he should have visited Ferguson in person, or should make a major speech on race, akin to the one he delivered in Philadelphia, to near-universal acclaim, during the 2008 campaign. But for a black president, more than for a white one, race is an acutely sensitive issue on which to speak out. It is laden with the risk of unintended consequences.

Space exploration, by comparison, is simple. The Orion project – like the first flights beyond our atmosphere, mankind’s first footsteps on the Moon and the recent, stunning, landing of the Rosetta probe on Comet 67P, hundreds of millions of miles from Earth – contains a good measure of escapism. Such projects generally are risky, certainly, as the recent Virgin Galactic disaster proves. But space travel is about the conquest of new frontiers, something for us to wonder at and make us happily amazed, even if the practical benefits of these ventures are disputable. No such uplifting notions attach to the Brown and Garner cases.

And space projects move at a gentle, almost stately pace. To them, the vice-like grip of the 24/7 news cycle does not apply. Take Orion, under development since 2006. The first manned flights will only come in seven or eight years’ time, and the Mars mission itself will not happen until 2030, almost five presidential terms from now.

Plenty of time, in other words, for the programme to be amended, slowed down, suspended or (whisper it) cancelled. The lesson is obvious, but bears constant repeating. Human problems are messier than the most daunting scientific problems. One day humans will make it to Mars. But it’s a safe bet that, when they do, race will still bedevil America.