Our Obligation to the Possible

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In 2005, Michael D. Griffin, in his Senate confirmation hearing to become NASA Administrator, all but said, We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.

Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard
April 27, 2005, Portrait: NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. NASA’s 11th administrator. Photo Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard

Dr. Griffin appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee a little over two years after the Shuttle Columbia disaster. His remarks make clear he and President George W. Bush saw themselves as presiding over the end of the Shuttle program, the ongoing “Space Station Era”, and the beginning of a new era of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

Click here for a PDF of Dr. Griffin’s complete Statement

From a structural standpoint, Griffin’s remarks reminded me of a strategy touted in presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s book On Speaking Well. She says colloquially, “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em—tell ‘em—then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” (pg. 24, paperback edition).

What is the essence of Michael D. Griffin’s message to ‘em, ‘em being the Senate Commerce Committee?

“The strategic vision for the U.S. manned space program is of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

This is plain and simple enough. But with what literary oomph does Griffin drive his message? First, he invokes Columbus, 1492, and the political backing provided by Isabella, Queen of Aragon. Griffin’s remarks are not a tired tribute to a historical figure who has largely fallen out of favor. He uses Columbus’s voyage, and more particularly Isabella’s role in it, to demonstrate a politically savvy justification for engaging in exploration.

Why did Columbus secure funding? Because the Queen recognized the inevitability of Columbus’s mission and wanted to make sure Spain, not some other country, lead the way and took the credit.

I return to my phony quote from the top. “We choose to continue doing these things, not because they are hard, but because if we don’t someone else will.”

Griffin’s remarks are laced with word choices that infuse a sense of achieving the possible in the context of what is inevitable and/or necessary. He speaks, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, of flying the Shuttle “as safely as possible…” He speaks of developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle “as soon as possible…” He announces “a lunar return program having the maximum possible utility…” And when he invokes Spain’s backing of Columbus, he speaks of that 15th Century effort as being “at the edge of what was technologically possible.”

Yet Griffin’s remarks strike me less as anthemic and, in word choice and subtext, more as steeped in a sense of obligation. His speech starts with a list of priorities to execute “the duties” of the office of NASA Administrator. He speaks of the completion of the Space Station as a matter of international “commitments.” Most explicitly, right after concluding his colonial history lesson, he says the following:

“In the twenty-first century and beyond, for America to continue to be preeminent among nations, it is necessary for us also to be the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

To a Republican administration in 2005 at least, exploration of the Moon and beyond may have seemed as inevitable as the European colonization of the Americas. There is even, perhaps intentionally, a little nod to Queen Isabella late in the speech. Griffin speaks of NASA’s science programs as being “crown jewels of the nation’s achievements.” A page earlier in the speech he spoke of the story of Queen Isabella “pledging her jewels to back the voyage” of Columbus.

These brief references to jewels, literal and metaphoric, are the most romantic Griffin’s statement gets. As he makes clear in his closing remarks, the nation’s exploration of space was not in jeopardy in 2005. Only at stake was its commitment to remaining on the edge of possibility, leading the way deeper into space than any other nation. For some, this obligation to the possible—for the sake of political supremacy—is reason enough to resume exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

Author: Jake Christensen

Jake Christensen, aka ChildeJake, is a Michigan-based writer with a strong interest in space exploration and NASA in particular. He has attended NASA Socials at Glenn Research Center and Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as trips to venues like the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. He is a member of The Planetary Society and an avid reader and creative writer. During the daytime, Jake provides marketing and administrative support for scientific equipment sales. His writing has appeared in The Planetary Report, Current Magazine in Ann Arbor, as well as online for pillownaut.blogspot.com, encoremichigan.com, and his other blog: Childe Jake’s Pilgrimage. He has also performed many times onstage in regional and educational theatre. Periodically, he appears in The Moth StorySLAMs.

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