One Small Step for Man, One Giant Hot Dog for Mankind

Somewhere in Kansas, there’s a long plodding line. In it, as on any given day, some 5,000 cattle slowly amble forward, each steer or heifer following the one just ahead. For the most part, they’re calm; it’s just another bovine line; cattle get used to them. Abruptly, for a few near the front, the familiarity changes and then it’s not the same old tired line anymore. Alarming sounds and frightening smells suddenly come from beyond a strange, curtain-like barrier. There’s some panic, but before realization has a chance to really set in, each is dangling upside down, hanging from a chain wrapped around at least one rear hoof. There’s no more normalcy, only pain and panic. If lucky, it happens quickly; the last sensation is probably a sharp clap to the skull, and then there are no more realizations to be had anymore. But the line doesn’t stop; it keeps moving forward through several areas where bleeding, skinning, beheading, and evisceration take place. The time elapsed could be measured in minutes: it was a steer slow-stepping in line, now it’s a carcass hanging in a cool room where it will rest in refrigerated purgatory for up to several days. Eventually, upon dispensation, it’s placed at the start of yet another line, a de-assembly line, passing through station after station where the carcass is sliced into smaller and smaller parts. At the line’s end, a truck awaits to transport the blessed parts to their final resting place: the stomachs of sometimes nearly starving, sometimes kind of hungry, and sometimes merely gluttonous human beings.

Somewhere in New York, about 30,000 people follow one another into an old minor league baseball park. Today it’s not for a baseball game; it’s for an annual Fourth of July event. They’ve come to watch human beings eat hot dogs. “Eat” is probably the wrong verb; the action more resembles a process of repetitious insertions. The winner of the 2021 men’s contest will be its oft-repeating champion: Joey Chestnut will insert, bite, and swallow 76 hot dogs in ten minutes (it’s a new world record). Michelle Lesco will win the ladies half of the contest. She won’t set a new record, but will still manage to swallow a respectable 30.75 hot dogs in the allotted ten minutes. All told, 30,000 human beings will watch 30 fellow human beings ingest about 750 hot dogs in twenty minutes. After the contest (or during), some of the less than seasoned contestants will likely puke-up their intake. The polished professionals, the ones who train properly, will keep it all down. After a few hours, the world champion will have a 76-hotdog-inspired bowel movement. Perhaps to assure its audience that they’ve witnessed more than puke and feces in the making, the event’s sponsor (Nathan’s Famous) will announce a donation of 100,000 additional hot dogs to New York City food banks. Somewhere in Kansas, a steer is dangling upside down by its hind hooves to make it all possible.

I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore; there’s more than the smell of cattle or hot dogs in the air. All around the world, but especially in The United States, millions of people have their eyes trained skyward, and it’s not to see the usual solar eclipse. Bigger things than that are happening up there. Moguls and media say so.

From somewhere in New Mexico, Richard Branson and three fellow crewmembers are leaving the earth to enjoy three minutes of zero-gravity influence at the edge of space. He’s spent 17 years and nearly a billion dollars to experience this lofty moment. It’s not just a one-off undertaking. More than 600 wealthy adventurers have already reserved $250,000 tickets for similar moments on future flights (if you didn’t ante up early, bring $450,000), and government contracts are expected to help fund related endeavors. Still, it’s been a major risk; the investment consumed nearly 20% of his net wealth. He’s now 70 years old and will have only about four and a half billion dollars left to spread out over his remaining lifetime.

Not to be outdone, fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are joining Branson in a quest for the great enrichments that await mankind on Earth’s moon, on Mars, and perhaps on planets as far away as Pluto. Bezos is spending even more than Branson to advance his Blue Origin space adventure. It’s an awful lot of money, but then again, he has more to play with — perhaps as much as 214 billion dollars. Elon Musk is right there with the other big boys, perhaps bringing more business savvy and long-term goals (like the colonization of Mars). Beyond Musk’s personal billions, his SpaceX program is supplemented with additional billions provided by outside investors and government contracts. If you add it all up, billions from the big boys and billions from even bigger governments, if you pool it all together; well, let’s just say it’s a big pile of hot dog money.

Somewhere in California, there’s a long line. In it, as on any given day, hundreds of factory workers are assembling Tesla’s. Elsewhere, in warehouses all around the country, workers are scampering up and down aisles to locate and relocate heavy boxes. And in nearly every American neighborhood, truck drivers are coursing the streets and walking up driveways (and perhaps peeing in bottles) to deliver boxes in timely fashion. In each case, employees are earning about 15 bucks an hour to help make the recreational zero-gravity experience of their employers possible. Perhaps to assure grounded earthlings that more is being witnessed than rich people floating in space, media and sponsors (who are likely earning a bit more than 15 bucks an hour) dust off old phrases for renewed contemplation: “another giant leap for mankind,” “just another example of American Exceptionalism,” and so on.

It was governmental effort that first sent men into space and then to the moon’s surface. It was the same kind of national effort that sent rovers to Mars and satellites beyond (like to the gravitational field of Pluto). For the first fifty or sixty years, only governments had access (taxation) to the assets required of space exploration. The scene has changed. Governments have delegated the burden of “taxation” to private enterprise; there’s been some resultant asset relocation taking place in America (and elsewhere). The era of entrepreneurial endeavor is upon us. Corporations (and individuals) with government sized budgets are assuming the reins. Space cowboys are here.

Is it now, or will it ever be worth it? All across America, all around the world, the oft meager wages of a billion-plus people are making the multi-billion-dollar big-boy dream possible. Whether of governmental or entrepreneurial effort, what will the bulk of mankind gain from it? It certainly won’t be the three minutes of zero-gravity adventure alluded to by Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin founders; their mega-dollar amusement park ride is beyond the sensible vacation allocation required of ordinary wage earners. Does it offer more than the joy of watching a 21st century version of yacht-club racing? What’s really in the giant leap for mankind?

Elon Musk has a bigger dream that reaches far beyond sixty miles or the moon. He’d like to permanently colonize Mars with a million people, and he’d like to do it over the course of his remaining lifetime (he’s fifty – do the math). He’s in a hurry for several stated reasons: (1) natural disasters may make the Earth uninhabitable (volcanoes, comets, etc.), (2) humans may make the world uninhabitable (nuclear war, etc.), (3) a population collapse on Earth might be imminent (low birthrates, etc.), and (4) if none of the afore mentioned scenarios play out, Earth will be engulfed by the Sun in about six billion years.

Presumably, the dream isn’t anchored to Mars (an exploding sun might be bad news there, also). It will only be the beginning of mankind’s journey to the stars. Someday, humans will be scattered throughout the universe. We’ll jump from star to star, and in a truly cosmic sense, we’ll move onward and outward for all eternity. Well, maybe not all of us; there’s a lot of “us” that won’t be found in “we.”

Musk isn’t the first human (or perhaps non-human) to consider star-jumping. Writers have long mused on the possibility, and some say we’ve already been visited by intelligent beings from other galaxies. We have our movies and the frequent citing of UFOs to bolster the consideration. We imagine the possibility of space visitors all the time. If they’re actually here or on their way, what kind of world would they likely have come from? Would the world they left behind be like our world of 200 competitive and often adversarial nations? Would they have departed from a planet hosting 30 forms of governmental control? Would they have hopped from star to star towing 4,200 spiritual religions? What’s the possibility of a world such as ours, a world so often at war with itself, a world so divided and fractious, to ever reach beyond its own solar system in a meaningful way?

Consider that first step envisioned by Musk: the colonization of Mars (in less than fifty years). Imagine the technologies (and assets) required to not just transport a million people, but to also create a self-sustaining city under protective bubbles on a hostile planet. Beyond thought of the required means and resource allocation, who would be the voyagers? Would the million chosen travelers reflect the demographics of the multi-billion inhabitants of Earth whose labors and lives would be tapped to support the effort? Or, would it be an elite kind of cohesive group that shared similar characteristics and values: race, ethnicity, religion, politics, etc. So, it’s complicated from the get-go. If elite, it wouldn’t be fair. If fair, it would be fractious (and what would be the point of spreading that into space?).

In either case, what of those left behind on a planet feared dying? Is it, “Good luck; stay in touch?” In Musk dreamland, does he or his protégé fly away and escape the pending holocaust with a cadre of enlightened, compliant, and dedicated workers? Does the entrepreneurial self-indulgent spirit so instrumental in the plundering and endangerment of Earth, temporarily resettle on Mars and then somehow assume a utopian kind of sensibility before eventually lifting off again to far distant stars?

It’s an elitist kind of dream, a vision of the ultimate gated community: escape from all the riff-raff and travails of Earth to live in adventurous harmony on another planet with like-minded and deserving constituents. It’s a “giant leap for mankind” that would exclude nearly all of mankind.

They used to be called pipe dreams — the short-lived, but grand visions one entertained when under the influence. They were profound in the evening’s haze, and laughable in the morning sunlight. It was the dope back then; today it’s the money. Money provides influence, and there’s a lot of potent influence wafting through the air, even in the sunlight. Perhaps it’s only the riff-raff, those beyond the cloud of influence, who are shaking their heads.

I’ve a feeling we’re not in Nathan’s Famous anymore — but we are watching a hot dog eating contest. There’s a lot of nourishment being consumed in a short amount of time, nourishment that will provide little sustenance. For the most part it’s wasted; it’s heading to glimmering porta potties in the sky. Amazing feats are being witnessed, but that’s all they are. Today’s “giant leap for mankind” made in space, will have about as much meaning for mankind as did the first: not much. Armstrong made the first such touted leap in 1969; after the moon-dust and hyperbole settled, little changed for mankind on Earth. Man’s small misstep in Vietnam continued as before, and didn’t finally end until six years later. Since the end of that war in 1975, the world has stepped into more than 90 additional armed conflicts that have killed millions. Civil and international wars transpire unabated, and we persist in abusing ourselves and the planet in countless other ways. We are a troubled planet, and we are in need of a giant leap for mankind, but hosting a zero-gravity ride, planting a flag on Neptune, or building a bubble dome on Mars will not provide it. We are a divided planet lacking the sensibility and cohesiveness required of meaningful space travel. Until a giant leap for mankind is made on the surface of Earth, any step taken in space will not be a leap, and it will not be taken for mankind. It will be a small step, a strutting small step taken by a man.

Vern Loomis lives in the Detroit area and occasionally likes to comment on news and events that interest him in whatever capacity available. Read other articles by Vern.