What might anthropologist Margaret Meade make of the thousands lining the streets of L.A. this weekend as space shuttle Endeavor inches its way across town? Decked out in American flags, NASA pins and baseball caps, they have come to pay homage to a technologically-advanced object that came from the skies, cheering as the miraculous white spacecraft is transported to a shrine at the California Science Center where millions will come in a pilgrimage of veneration.
Would Meade conclude that Los Angeles has become a modern, urban cargo cult like those she so studiously documented in the South Pacific in the 1950s? The similarities do seem rather striking.
Meade documented the worship lavished upon downed American planes among native Pacific cultures. On the tiny island of Tanna in the nation of Vanuatu, natives still build faux airfields and pray to idols shaped like cargo planes that swooped over their island in World War II. Devotees assemble in the village of Lamakara every February to honor the phantom American airman deity John Frum who may or may not have ever landed there. (“Hello, I’m John from America”).
They dress in anything vaguely American — odds and ends left behind by visitors over the years. Some have “USA” painted across their chest in red pigments. All that different from the patriotic garb seen on some Endeavor fans this weekend?
As a village elder told Smithsonian magazine, “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him. Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
Are Angelenos invoking a return to the glory years of SoCal’s aerospace industry in their reverence to Endeavor? The shuttle was manufactured here, after all, an enterprise that created jobs, wealth and scads of the same consumer goods in the islanders’ prayers.
Ray Bradbury didn’t buy into shuttle mystique. Arguably one of America’s top space boosters, I interviewed Bradbury back when shuttles were rolling off the assembly line at Rockwell in Downey and caught the writer slipping out of a secret door of his office a cleverly disguised wooden panel skirting the elevator banks of the Sterling Plaza building on Wilshire at Beverly.
“It’s a bus,” the “Martian Cronicles” author explained, “It goes up, it comes down. It’s earth orbit. That is not space exploration,” he said.
He’s right. And where are the amazing products the space station promised to generate? No Tang for our tax dollars this trip? Only middle school science projects that question whether spiders freak out in zero gravity and spin bizarre webs? Not everyone is as jaded.
“When the shuttle rolls through town, it’s particularly poignant to hear how their fathers and grandfathers worked on the shuttle, or Apollo,” JPL spokeswoman Jane Platt tells me, a theme that runs deep in cargo cult literature.
In “Han Solo and the Lost Legacy,” cargo cultist descendants of the crew of a treasure-laden starship maintain sacred landing fields complete with a mock-ups of the spaceship, veneration of their elders and a yearning for more loot from space.
And let’s not forget that race of tiny aliens living in a Grand Central Station rental locker who worshipped a watch that K left behind in “Men in Black 2.” All hail K!
Nothing against the cheering crowds celebrating a stunning scientific and technological achievement, and the role Southern California played in a space exploration milestone.
Still, Endeavor seems to be pushing a button buried deeper in our DNA that we care to acknowledge. The more things change...