X-Message-Number: 22741
From: "Mark Plus" <>
Subject: MSNBC: Have we humans peaked as a species? 
Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2003 08:54:41 -0800


As Concorde goes, so do we

Have we humans peaked as a species?

By Michael Moran

NEW YORK, Oct. 23    I remember amazing details of my first flight, though 
at the time, in 1968, I was just over 6 years old. The jet was a Boeing 707 
operated by TWA that had taken off from Paris that morning, stopped at John 
F. Kennedy Airport in New York and was continuing on to National Airport in 
Washington, D.C. (The idea that someone would name an airport for Ronald 
Reagan would have been unimaginable at the time).

I REMEMBER men in suits, my dad included, putting their fedoras in the 
overhead compartments. Very few women, besides my mom, seemed to be on the 
plane. Except for the stewardesses   yes, that s what they were called, and 
called themselves, back then   who all wore white and red mini-dresses and 
kept coming over to where my parents and I were seated and pinching me.
       They gave me a set of plastic wings, a package of bubble-gum 
cigarettes (imagine the lawsuits today!) and invited me into the cabin to 
sit in the pilot s lap before we taxied out to the runway. Flying then 
transcended mere travel; it took a person into another dimension, and for me 
it provided a glimpse of the life led by the envied few known as  the jet 
       No one knew it at the time, but the jet we flew in and the airline 
that flew it would be doomed, victims of the seemingly inexorable march of 
that thing we call  progress.  It was relatively easy reconciling the 
passage of the Boeing 707, the first successful jet airliner, into history. 
Consider its successors: the enormous, whale-like 747, which seemed, at 
once, to defy gravity and class distinctions, opening the skies to slobs 
like me; and the delta-winged spaceship known as Concorde, the jet that 
ensured that luxury and the traditional ethos of flying did not fall victim 
to the  super saver  fare.

UP WE GO ...

        Like the height of skyscrapers, the speed of the winning car at the 
Indy 500, the world record in the pole vault and the average weight of an 
American, humanity always seemed to be besting itself in the days of my 
youth. The Empire State Building gave way to the World Trade Center towers; 
the corner grocery to the supermarket; Sonny Liston to Muhammad Ali.
       Yet Friday, as the Concorde roars off Kennedy s runway for the last 
time, I cannot help thinking we are losing more than the last vestige of 
this  golden age of air travel.  What succeeds this wonderful aircraft? At 
one time, the Anglo-French consortium that built it had a faster, quieter, 
bigger, more fuel-efficient Concorde II on its drawing boards. Instead, the 
company changed its name to Airbus and built a flying toothpaste tube.
       If such a thing as the fastest means of civilian travel can pass into 
dust with so little bother, can we help but wonder: Have we humans peaked as 
a species?


         Intellectually, of course, I understand the forces and factors 
behind the decision not to replace this unique symbol of human ingenuity. 
British Airways and Air France concluded that the cost of a replacement 
aircraft could never be recouped in the life of the aircraft even at the 
outrageous fares Concorde s elite passengers shelled out: $10,000 a ticket.
       Still, the disappearance of this entire mode of civilian 
transportation   supersonic flight   is unlike any other phasing out I can 
think of in human history. Slave galleys, paddlewheels, stagecoaches, ocean 
liners and trans-continental rail service all had their day. Yet in none of 
those cases did humanity settle for something less when their day had past. 
In that, Concorde s retirement may be unique.

       What does this say about the human race? I can almost hear my Green 
friends already claiming this as a moment in which  progress  is redefined: 
faster and bigger and higher are merely a na ve prescription for the 
extinction of the planet, goes the argument. Or, for the sake of the 
anarcho-syndicalists who like their slogans to fit on placards:  No more 
flying Hummers! 
       Perhaps. The idea that humanity is always besting itself probably is 
a matter of perspective. Certainly, no Native American would ever claim such 
a thing. And the misanthrope in me can think of plenty of ways in which we 
push the envelope that are hardly worth commemorating. A few recent ones:
Most innocent humans killed in a single terrorist incident (2,792, World 
Trade Center, New York, 2001).
Most humans displaced by public works project (1.2 million, Three Gorges 
Dam, 2002, China).
Most expensive Senate race in history (Hillary Clinton (D) vs. Rick Lazio 
(R), $68 million, New York, 2000).
Largest conventional bomb (MOAB, 21,000 lbs., U.S. Air Force, 2003).

       There are positive examples, too. The reduction of U.S. and Russian 
nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War; the world record in the 
men s mile, currently 3:43.13 but falling every few years or so; new strains 
of rice and wheat that may prove more resistant to Africa s killer droughts; 
Viagra; and the list goes on.

        But isn t there something incomplete about that list? I m sure I m 
missing many others   breakthroughs in breast-enlargement technology, 
genetically engineered defecation-free dogs, low-calorie beer. Yet all of 
these things seem like incremental improvements   tweaks, if you will   
rather than breakthroughs. We appear, as a species, to be building on past 
successes and afraid to break new ground. This year s Nobel Prize for 
Physics, for instance, was shared by three scientists representing Russia, 
the United States and Britain  for pioneering contributions to the theory of 
superconductors and superfluids.  Contributions? No offense, but what ever 
happened to discoveries?
       Is it wrong for us to demand more and faster progress   that cancer 
be cured, that someone will invent a shaving implement ideal for the male 
face but completely useless for the female legs (or at least equipped with a 
very loud alarm that warns of misuse)? Should we really stop dreaming that 
our cars, trains and aircraft should grow in speed proportionate to that of 
Internet pornography?

       The retirement of Concorde without any realistic hope for a successor 
has got to signal something more than a new concern for gas mileage or hard 
times in the airline industry. Anyone who has flown from New York to Tokyo, 
from London to New Delhi or Vladivostok to Moscow can easily imagine paying 
at least twice the fare for half the service.

       I would say, here,  if we can send a man to the moon,    but we even 
gave that up. About the same time American aerospace industry canceled its 
own version of the Concorde   the stillborn  SST    America s space 
priorities shifted from manned interplanetary adventure to hauling cargo 
into orbit. Not coincidentally, I would argue, that s about when we set a 
national speed limit of 55 miles per hour, had our last house call from a 
doctor or fresh milk delivered in cold glass jars at the front door.
       I never did fly on the Concorde: I turned down a chance in the 
mid-1990s, while based in London, to fly to the North Pole and back (if I 
promised to write a story about it) on New Year s Eve. I sucked up furiously 
to the BA press man in New York as soon as the Concorde s retirement was 
announced last April, but, alas, to no avail. I m sure my seat went to 
somebody like Boy George or Yoko Ono.

        But I will always have my special memory. During my years in London, 
years I spent in a less than lucrative post at the BBC World Service, I 
lived in Southfields, a southwest London neighborhood best known as the tube 
stop people alight from if they re going to Wimbledon. Every day at 4:30 
p.m., the dishes would rumble a bit and my 2-year-old daughter would race to 
the front window, part the lace curtains and point into the sky.
        Concorde!  Caitie would scream.  Daddy, the Concorde! 
       If only we all had such faith in our dreams.

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