In March of 2009 people were desperate for a symbol of hope; they found it in one small bat. The internet dubbed him Space Bat.
Space Bat was an Icon of an America That Needed Hope
The Obama administration was only a few months old. The stock market bull run of the great recession had finally (though at the time uncertainly) broken. The housing market was still in the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis and the United States was losing three-quarters of a million jobs a month. Retirees were panicked, young jobseekers and those about to graduate were panicked, nothing really felt certain.
Americans needed something, anything, to inspire them.
Then, on March 15th during the Discovery launch, a free-tailed bat was spotted clutched onto the shuttle’s external fuel tank. The bat, which experts said probably had an injured wing, clung to the shuttle through takeoff.
NASA dispassionately explained that “The animal likely perished quickly during Discovery’s climb into orbit”, but the people had a need and the internet was more than willing to fill that need with the inspirational myth of a injured bat who chose not to settle for slowly dying, alone and flightless, but instead to cling to a rocket and fly into outer space.
Bereft of his ability to fly and with nowhere to go, a courageous bat climbed aboard our Discovery with stars in his weak little eyes. The launch commenced, and Spacebat trembled as his frail mammalian body was gently pushed skyward. For the last time, he felt the primal joy of flight; for the first, the indescribable feeling of ascending toward his dream—a place far away from piercing screeches and crowded caves, stretching forever into fathomless blackness.
Whether he was consumed in the exhaust flames or frozen solid in the stratosphere is of no concern. We know that Spacebat died, but his dream will live on in all of us.
My Point is that People Need Stories
I’ve written before about stories and why we crave them. At the time of the March 2009 Discovery launch people needed a narrative of hope, things looked bleak for a great many. No one of a scientific mind actually believes that Space Bat grabbed onto that fuel tank in the hopes of seeing space. But people needed an inspirational figure and the thought of a bat clinging desperately to their last chance to fly by hitching a ride into outer space did the trick.
Sure enough, the stock market slump ended. By December the housing market was showing signs of life again. One year after Space Bat’s iconic flight the US job market had begun to turn around and would continue to add jobs almost every quarter since then.
In our collective media narrative the great recession turned around, not on profit-and-loss statements, not with the machinations of government, not with a game-changing disruptive technology, but with the flight of one tiny and insignificant flying mammal.
Because, at the time, people needed Space Bat. Space Bat remind people that no matter how injured, how beaten, how broken, that you can still shoot for the stars if you hang on for dear life.
Space Bat, they’re the reason for the season.
Image credit: Screenshot via Knowyourmeme