Pride and Purpose

A few weeks ago, my wife generously gifted me the Lego Concorde set. I got around to building it this weekend. It was the first time I had experienced a full Lego set in about twenty years, but it felt exactly as magical as I had remembered. As a kid, I would have felt all the joy and wonder of something so intricate — and so large; the Concorde model is over a metre long — replicating what has to be the most captivating airplane ever built.

Those emotions hit me pretty hard as an adult building it, too, but I could not help but think of how different the real-life version of projects like these used to be conceived compared to how they are now. In the Verge’s coverage of this Lego set, Sean Hollister notes a resurgent interest in supersonic planes, with orders from several airlines for the Boom Overture. As it happens, I am currently reading Ashlee Vance’s “When the Heavens Went on Sale” about the rapid privatization of space.

I am not an expert in any of this. This is not a history lesson, though I did try to avoid any factual errors. Call this little more than a late Sunday night rambling post of how I am feeling now. Pure vibes ahead.

Both the Concorde and the majority of space exploration are products of extraordinary engineering efforts backed by entire countries, bestowing them with a larger purpose than simple business economics. To be sure, it is incredible to read about how private spacecraft from Rocket Lab deliver into orbit tiny satellites made by Planet Labs which create global imagery that, for example, gets used by journalists to uncover oil tankers spoofing their location. That is incredible.

I also wish there was room for these kinds of big, national-level projects of collective pride. Landing on the Moon was a big moment for the entire world, but a particularly special one for people in the United States; the Space Shuttle continued the record of having a national space icon. Concorde was a partnership between British and French interests and it produced something (almost) entirely unique. I do not mean this in a nationalist sense, nor do I want to sound like a full-on communist — though it is strange to me how those two vastly different labels could be seen in the same set of things. Magnificent projects like these seem as though business motives were disregarded in favour of doing something really, really great. Something special.

It is hard to look at the 1950s or 1960s and want to bring almost anything to the present day. The world now is overall a much better place than it was then. Perhaps my rumination is misplaced. But it is bizarre to feel like efforts like these are not possible today because they lack a purpose we care about now. The closest approximation we have now seems to be NASA’s attempt to send people to Mars in the 2030s. NASA is planning to build to that by sending people to the Moon in around 2025, in a craft outsourced to SpaceX. This mission, like Boom’s existence, feels like a retro chic callback to a glorious past mixed with the financialized world of today. Perhaps I do not have an accurate point of reference but it would be nice, I think, if projects like these were a more collective effort that entire nations or the whole world could get behind, as projects for the good of humanity.