Last month, SpaceShipOne blasted to the edge of space from a Mojave Desert airport for the second time in five days, winning its design team a $10 million prize. The ship is the only privately funded, manned vehicle ever to leave the atmosphere, and has already inspired the owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways to promise space flights for tourists by 2008, under the name Virgin Galactic. Orbiting hotels are expected to follow.
The flights proved little about aviation, as the Air Force had made similar flights more than 40 years ago. But the excitement proved once again that the astronaut is fully enshrined alongside the cowboy in American mythology.
The myth of the cowboy is so powerful that any man donning a cowboy hat today is instantly imbued with bravery, independence and masculinity. Never mind that 19th-century cowboys bore a strong resemblance to today's migrant farm workers, and not much resemblance at all to cowboy impersonators like Garth Brooks.
The idealized astronaut shares many traits with the idealized cowboy: courage in an alien landscape, toughness, individualism. That's hardly surprising, since myths are created by our aspirations and propaganda, as well as by history. All the 20th-century hype about a future of lunar colonies and Martian settlements arose from the same restlessness and delusional boosterism that enticed settlers a century earlier to desolate places like eastern Wyoming. They believed that rain would follow the plow.
In the mythology of the space age, the astronaut is a hero not just because space travel is dangerous and difficult, but because space travel is a gift to humanity -- promoting peace, knowledge and progress while demonstrating the triumph of the human spirit.
Never mind that NASA's purpose, first and foremost, was to establish our military and technological superiority over the Soviets. Never mind that Neil Armstrong was blasted to the moon on a modified ballistic missile, and that his "giant leap for mankind" was more a giant leap for the military-industrial complex.
Despite the high-tech image of the astronaut as a supreme American hero, the first astronauts, as Tom Wolfe described in his book, The Right Stuff, didn't need to be skilled pilots, but rather were brave human guinea pigs willing to be blasted into space in a tin can atop a missile. In fact, the very first astronaut was a chimpanzee -- even less glamorous than a farm worker.
The power of the astronaut myth was dramatically expressed when, along with six full-time astronauts, an otherwise ordinary teacher named Christa McAuliffe died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
In the ensuing national mourning, the level of sanctimonious patriotism soared into the stratosphere. Surely the loss of McAuliffe and the other astronauts was a tragedy. But do we ever see that level of empathy applied to the equally tragic death of an equally worthy earthbound teacher? And did anyone ask what noble cause McAuliffe died for? Was she selflessly risking her life to enlighten all the children languishing ignorant and neglected in the outer reaches of the cosmos? Nobody asks, any more than they ask Garth Brooks for instruction on bull castration.
Perhaps the archetypal bearer of the spaceman myth -- the Marlboro Man of Astronauts -- is John Glenn. His mojo was so compelling that in 1998, when Glenn was 77 and representing Ohio in the Senate, NASA sent him up in the space shuttle at a cost of some $500 million. The ostensible purpose of the flight was to participate in experiments studying the effects of weightlessness on old people -- experiments that will have great practical importance when gravity ceases to operate in Florida.
The true purpose of the voyage was more like a Western Pioneer Days pageant; it was a chance to relive the glory of a defining historical period, while indulging the American public with enhanced radiance from the astronaut's halo.
It is this desire of Americans to touch the greatness of astronaut-hood that explains why hundreds of journalists and thousands of revelers flocked to Mojave, Calif., in jubilation over the underwhelming achievement of SpaceShipOne. They hope efforts like those of Virgin Galactic will allow us to play astronaut as easily as we can now play cowboy on a dude ranch.
But success is hardly guaranteed. Pan Am accepted more than 90,000 space flight reservations between 1968 and 1971, and never made good on any of them.
Then again, if you don't need cows to be a cowboy, do you really need space travel to be an astronaut?
Alex Roth is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), where this story first appeared. He writes for fun and works as a credit analyst in Portland, Ore.