Saturday, July 25, 2009



On moon-walk-anniversary day, Kenneth Chang lamented in the New York Times that President Obama spoke well of the Apollo missions 40 years ago, but gave no support to further space exploration today. Here’s Mr Chang’s lede:

The three Apollo 11 astronauts appeared at the White House today, and just as he had at a speech at the National Academy of Sciences in April, President Obama spoke in glowing platitudes of NASA’s past and said almost nothing of NASA’s future.

Note particularly that he “spoke in glowing platitudes”.

I do not think that “platitude” means what Mr Chang thinks it means.

A platitude is, according to American Heritage, “a trite or banal remark or statement, especially one expressed as if it were original or significant.” I refer to the things you get in Chinese restaurants these days as “platitude cookies”; it’s a decidedly negative characterization. The idea of “glowing platitudes” seems almost contradictory by definition.

I suppose Mr Chang may actually have meant it that way, implying that even the praise Mr Obama gave was silly and false, but I really didn’t get that sense of it. I rather think he meant it to be something like “glowing praise”, and used the wrong word.

On a non-language point, it’s interesting to look at the comments to Mr Chang’s piece. They’re mixed, with some hoping that NASA moves forward, and others glad to see that Mr Obama is thinking more of, say, heath care and the economy than of more useless space exploration.

I, of course, am in the former camp, and would love to see NASA missions creating moon bases, and going to Mars and beyond. But you knew that.


WM Irwin said...

Manned exploration of other worlds advances science and technology (including health and medicine), spurs growth in the domestic economy, and dramatically brings to everyone's attention what a fragile and beautiful planet our Earth is. And how important it is to take good care of it. I hope that it would be done in the future as a cooperative venture between nations instead of the Moon race of the sixties and the Cold War era.

Laurie said...

Bill and I were watching the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon last night, and when they showed the first suborbital flight with Alan Shepherd (played by Ted Levine) I said, "I've seen that capsule!" and surprised myself by bursting into tears. I'm apparently very emotional about the space program.

We'll see how I do with the second episode... I've seen the Apollo 1 capsule that Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were in, too. It wasn't on display the last time I went to the Air and Space Museum, though. Seeing it, and learning about the horror, is one of my earliest memories.