The crop of commercials shown during the Super Bowl 50 telecast ranged from the incomprehensible (puppy monkey baby, Mountain Dew) to the silly (Dorito sonogram) to the truly great (hot dogs running to condiments, Heinz). Fiat Chrysler posted an iconic advertising installment of its Jeep product line, invoking the legacy of its off road vehicles in the past. And then there was the Audi commercial.
For me, the Audi commercial was the best offering by a wide margin. The commercial starts with shots of space memorabilia placed throughout a residence, the echoes of astronaut radio transmissions and old news broadcasts whispering in the background. The camera moves into the living room and settles on an elderly man sitting in a chair and staring at nothing, his dinner sitting untouched in a tray. The man is stern, but melancholy, with a faint air of the retired military man. His caregiver takes away the unwanted food as the lights of a car pulling into the driveway shine onto the patio outside. It is his son, and as he takes one look at his father, a set of complex emotions play across his face.
“Ok, Commander,” the son says. “Come with me.”
Outside is Audi’s R8 sports couple. The son hands his father the key fob, and David Bowie’s Starmans begins playing as scenes of the father as a young man and astronaut participating in a space launch are intertwined with him getting into the car, starting it up, and driving off into the moonlit night.
The commercial is pure genius, evoking warm feelings for both the characters and the car itself, filled with the nostalgia of early space adventure mixed with today’s attainable technology. Bethonie Butler and Maura Judkis of the Washington Post note in their list of the top 10 commercials of Super Bowl 50 that the commercial evokes “real melancholy that comes from watching a man whose best days in life have already passed by, and a resolution in watching him be his younger courageous self again”.
It is typical of the Post to miss the obvious undertones of the commercial. The German company, likely itself connected in some fashion with the origins of the U.S. space program following the collapse of the Nazi regime, not so subtly reminds U.S. viewers of the past greatness of the NASA missions and the chasm of time that is rapidly growing between the last meaningful space missions and today’s feeble scientific endeavors.
The senility of the U.S. space program is well into its final phase. The last military contractor partnership led by Boeing that makes disposable rockets for space missions can’t produce them without Russian-made engines–a technology that was mastered by the U.S forty-five years ago. A lack of space launch vehicles means that NASA has to pay Russia to put its astronauts into space and supply them with equipment once they are there. The Space Shuttle fleet has been moved out of its hangers and into museums to collect dust. Millions of man-hours and billions of dollars are wasted in a useless orbiting space laboratory that is more of a diplomatic mission and scientific fig leaf for the European Space Agency than anything else.
Most of this is the product of the Obama administration, which has done more damage to the U.S. space program than any other administration since WWII. The administration’s navel gazing composed of a potpourri of liberal domestic agenda items lacks any vision in terms of nation building. The country’s infrastructure continues to decay, the military continues to shrink, and its economy continues to erode from the fringes inward as Obama and his lieutenants bicker with the opposition over health care subsidies, gun control, oil pipelines, and immigration reform. It is the worst sort of political blindness, a blindness that promotes decay in the country’s institutions while the president spends his time smirking during arrogant speeches sandwiched between rounds of golf and issuances of executive orders that seek to undermine the authority of the other two branches of government in order to more easily press his nose more firmly into his navel.
Ironically it was another Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, that put a fire under the U.S. space program. And he did this during a time of social turmoil and Cold War tensions that would be sufficient to distract 21st Century presidents from accomplishing anything useful. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said. “Ask what you can do for your country”. His words echo across the intervening decades since his untimely death. The U.S. put a man on the moon only six years after his assassination, and had started building a fleet of space shuttles three years after that.
Twenty years of the golden era of space flight ensued. But it all started coming undone with the Clinton administration in 1993. There was little appetite to fund the cost of replacing the aging Space Shuttle fleet, and NASA only received a patchwork of funding to keep things going. This continued into the Bush administration years, and funding languished as huge sums were spent to sustain combat operations in the Middle East. But the final nail of the coffin was the Obama administration, who quickly put into place cost cutters in charge of NASA. The shuttle fleet was shelved. Space launches were cut back to bare military necessity. A ridiculous manned mission concept using 70’s era rocket technology was draped over the mess at NASA like an ideological tarp. And the agency was forgotten.
So in the last year of the Obama presidency, a German car company tactfully nudges the U.S. people with its proverbial toe. Remember the great the things you have accomplished as a nation. That great things are still remaining to accomplish.
And if we buy a few Audi R8 sports cars along the way, so much the better.
3/2/17 postscript: For Superbowl XLI, Anheuser-Busch, now the subsidiary of a Brazilian company, topped Audi’s commercial with their own take on the American experience.