Saturn, from NASA images used in the multimedia symphonic work, The Planets—an HD Odyssey

The final liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis took place last week just as I happened to be reading reports of New York City Opera’s plans for the 2011-12 season. The last mission in NASA’s 30-year shuttle program generated lots of news coverage, and accompanying speculation about America’s future in outer space. I felt a little sorry for the NASA spokesperson sent out to do interviews, as she brightly attempted to convey that the end of the shuttle program does not signal a fallow period for NASA, or even a slowdown. No, she insisted with a chipper smile, this isn’t an end, it’s a beginning. NASA has lots of plans underway and the next phase will begin soon.

My heart went out to her for having to project that optimistic message when there were no ready answers to the reporter’s questions about what the next destination might be, or if there was a time frame for the heavy rocket program that’s expected to be NASA’s next focus, or how the agency is dealing with the layoff of more than 1,500 shuttle workers. She knew, as well as I, that we all viewed the Atlantis mission as the last hurrah for a once-heralded program.

I had one eye on that coverage while reading about City Opera’s plans to present five productions in locations around the city next season. Reports were dribbling in prior to an official announcement on July 12 and the plan was being called into question by nearly everyone in the field. Terry Teachout, writing in the Wall Street Journal, asked whether we need even City Opera anymore.

Several times in subsequent days, I heard acquaintances speak of City Opera in the past tense. These were not opera devotees, but the kind of people who might have been attracted to the People’s Opera in the past—sometime attendees who have a basic knowledge of what’s happening the city’s arts scene. Somehow they’d taken the announcement of the company’s departure from Lincoln Center, following on the heels of numerous bad-news stories, as a de facto admission that City Opera is dead, or at least on life support. My response that no, City Opera is not folding, that it will be presenting operas in different locations next year, was greeted with a shrug. I had an inkling of what that NASA spokesperson felt as she tried to put a cheerful spin on the situation. NASA—oops, I mean City Opera—we have an image problem.

The majority of Americans haven’t paid much attention to the space program for years. Shuttle missions carrying supplies and experiments to the International Space Station seemed so routine. Even the sight of astronauts doing space walks to make repairs began to seem a bit like watching the neighbor fix his garage door. It was kind of boring to anyone not passionate about or intimately involved with space exploration. How anticlimactic is it for the last shuttle, Atlantis, to return to Earth carrying a load of Space Station trash?

As someone who is old enough to have watched pre-shuttle space flights with awe, I had to wonder how we’d gotten to this place. How can we have come to take the space program’s scientific and technological breakthroughs for granted, stopped considering the philosophical aspects of man exploring the universe? Could it be Americans no longer think we need to be exploring space? Do we really even need NASA anymore?

Part of the NASA spin that I heard delivered by various agency spokespeople and Congressional advocates built on the need for public support, to justify future funding. But the scripted stance had an air of desperation about it that the public is quick to pick up on. Something similar could be detected in the comments I heard about City Opera. Giving up a permanent home at Lincoln Center, and hitting the road for a handful of shows spread out around the city, seemed to strike casual observers more as a last hurrah than a way to restructure the company. News of City Opera’s demise may be premature, but audiences can smell fear.

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