“When the sunlight shines through the blackness of space it’s black, but I was in sunlight and I was able to look at this blackness! And what are you looking at? Call it the universe, but it’s the infinity of space and the infinity of time. I’m looking at something called space that had no end and at time that has no meaning. You can really focus on it because you’ve got this planet out there, this star called Earth, which itself is in this blackness, but it is lit up because the sunlight strikes on an object, strikes on something called Earth. And it’s not a hostile blackness. Maybe it’s not hostile because of the beauty of the Earth that sort of gives it light.” — an Apollo astronaut.
“We’ll enjoy unlimited submission—from men who’ve learned nothing except to submit. We’ll call it ‘to serve.’ We’ll give out medals for service. You’ll fall over one another in a scramble to see who can submit better and more. There will be no other distinction to seek. No other form of personal achievement. Can you see [Matt Taylor] in the picture? No? Then don’t waste time on foolish questions. Everything that can’t be ruled, must go. And if freaks persist in being born occasionally, they will not survive beyond their twelfth year. When their brain begins to function, it will feel the pressure and it will explode. The pressure gauged to a vacuum. Do you know the fate of deep-sea creatures brought out to sunlight? So much for future [Taylors]. The rest of you will smile and obey.”
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (modified).
I think that critics of manned* space exploration do not quite “get” what space exploration is and could be, and advocates of manned space exploration simply don’t know how to talk to them. So let me try (again).
There are several objections to manned space exploration, and all of them are wrong. The most moderate objection is that the knowledge acquired through manned space exploration is more cheaply available through unmanned space exploration. What’s the suppressed premise? That the only value space exploration has lies in knowledge acquisition. Imagine this argument being offered for closing national parks (we have lots of scientific knowledge about trees already). The “unmanned is cheaper” argument cuts little ice because the purpose of manned space exploration is not to acquire knowledge about nature (yes, places off the earth are also “nature,” nature-lovers) by the least expensive means necessary. This applies to the related objection that knowledge has no value unless it has “practical” value, and so even unmanned probes shouldn’t exist. What is “practical” is left uncharacterized, of course, but even if we set aside the complaint that this generally means “practical in the short-term, presupposing existing conditions” (which makes almost everything we benefit from formerly impractical) there is still a Maslovian point: “practical” here tends to mean “satisfying the most basic needs as much as possible, while ignoring all the higher needs indefinitely.” This could be argued for, but it seldom is, and I think most people would reject it, if it meant that no more complaints about sexism in video games should be uttered until everyone on earth has their minimum daily nutritional requirements.
Of course this is my segue into your real objection: “what higher needs?” Well, I have already told you, haven’t I? Nature is not the same thing as the recent ecological condition of the planet we happen to have evolved on. Nature is everything. And if you want to qualify that by saying that your concern is not with everything regardless of its condition, but with what we would call wilderness, well, the wilderness on this planet is but a near infinitesimal fraction of all the wilderness that there is.
Space advocates often talk of the need for a frontier. I’m not going to touch that one, because space opponents, many of them, are likely to think that space being a new frontier is the best reason for us not to go. So let’s set that topic aside for a moment and return to parks, and, if I may, the sacred. Most people who approve of parks do not think that human beings should be prevented from experiencing them or being aware of their existence, even if most people who approve of parks would not say that our human experience of them is their only justification. It would be a very strange discussion indeed if a debate over national parks were couched in terms of an either/or: either we level them, develop them, consume them, or we make a special point of having nothing whatsoever to do with them, to the point of everyone being unaware of their existence. Talk about a false alternative!
(You may not like this comparison because parks, a kind of not-doing, is free, whereas space, a kind of doing, is not. This is to overlook opportunity costs. Parks are not free, since they represent everything we must give up, to keep them.)
Here’s another false alternative: either we focus all our sense of the sacred (which is, I hope you already know, something independent of religious belief, and thus separate from the question of the rationality of our beliefs) on the Earth Mother, or we have no sense of the sacred at all. No ancient, self-respecting pagan would’ve recognized such a view. There are many gods, and many of them are… sky gods. Perhaps it is our modern ecological pagans’ suspicion of at least their local varieties of monotheism that makes them deeply suspicious of sky gods, but one can take this too far. Wonderment at the depth and vastness of the sky, and bewildered awe at the thought of the extravagant profusion of whole worlds, a diversity of wildernesses we can scarcely imagine, and, presumably, a diversity of ways of being conscious and self-aware… this is not sacred? This has no place in a sense of the sacred?
I understand the fear: you think that there is nothing to this except twisting nature to our ends and dominating it for our own purposes. Except that it isn’t. That’s just a stereotype (and, I suspect, a gendered one). And of course, you don’t want to have no technology and no purposes whatsoever. I know you don’t. You want appropriate technology, appropriate purposes. What you don’t realize is that taming fire to open the sky is both of those things. We who do know this have not done much to communicate this fact to you with our talk of frontiers and spin-offs, but it’s still true.
The film Gravity begins with a title card that reads “in space, life is impossible.” This is, I’m sorry to say, one of the most egregious and seductive lies of the many lies that film has promulgated. Because, first, obviously, life in space is possible. Almost the whole film takes place in space and is about someone who is alive. But more subtly, the sense in which it is true that in space, life is impossible, is the following: in space, if you do not understand and respect the wilderness that surrounds you, and adapt yourself to it wisely, your life becomes impossible. Now explain to me where that isn’t true! Yes, everywhere, life for us is impossible… unless we are wise. (The second most egregious lie is that the most important thing a woman can do with herself is get in touch with her emotions and stay close to home. Seriously? And you didn’t even notice that it was saying that? Contrast that with Interstellar and its two female leads, the explorer who ends the film, not on earth but in the interstellar wilderness, and the physicist unriddling rather than succumbing to the nature of gravity.)
It would take me a whole ‘nuther post to explain why it is that I think Interstellar calls us to receive the sky because the sacred is there too, and not a sacredness that issues belittling orders, tells fanciful stories, and lies to us about death, but a sacred which is content to simply be, and which gives us a possibility of awe if we only see fit to receive it. A thinker said this better than I can, so I will end with his words: Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky.
* The term is traditional; I await its replacement.
We intellectual aeronauts! — All these hardy birds that fly the farthest — surely when they can no longer go on, they perch somewhere or other on a mast or on the narrow ledge of a cliff— and are even grateful for this wretched accommodation! But who would conclude from this that a vast open space no longer lay before them, that they had flown as far as possible? In the end, all our great teachers and predecessors have come to rest, and it is not always with the noblest and most graceful gestures that exhaustion sets in: and so shall it be with us! But what difference does that make? Other birds will fly farther! This faith and insight of ours races upwards past them, rising above our own intellectual shortcomings, and from this height catches sight of flocks of far stronger birds in the distance flying on ahead of us, striving to reach what we too have striven to reach, where everything is still sea and nothing but sea! — And where do we want to go? Do we want to cross the sea? To where is this powerful longing drawing us, which we deem more worthy than any pleasure? Why are we drawn in just this direction, to where all of humanity’s suns have so far set? Will the tale someday be told of how once we too steered westward in hopes of reaching some India — but that it was our lot to founder on infinity? Or, my brothers? Or? —
Nietzsche, Dawn §575 (trans. The Poseidonian)
I feel a bit odd writing this. For one thing, many of my friends are already quite heavily invested emotionally in space activism, and for them, caring goes without saying. For those who don’t care, a number of assumptions I suspect they make will lead them to think that caring is quirky or worse. But I have come to think over time not only that space exploration is one of the most important things we can be doing with our intelligence, energy and resources, but that the difference between the extent to which that is the case, and the extent to which people care about it is so great, that talking about it is important.
But first, the assumptions. I admit that I was once enamored with the adventures portrayed in the science fiction novels I read as a young boy, and I know that people who are left cold by space exploration often think that it is a special interest driven by psychologically immature men who want to live the fantasy by proxy. Second, I am well aware of the fact that manned space exploration has always involved funding to corporations which were also defense contractors, that defense spending is high and that war is bad. I am well aware of the fact that the heyday of manned space exploration in this country was intertwined with assertion of national prestige during the Cold War. For many people, that, and the fact that every penny spent on manned space exploration could just as easily be spent on, say, medical research that might save lives, or income redistribution that might improve their quality, settles it. When you put all these considerations together, it is quite natural for some people to think that manned space exploration is simply indefensible. This is compounded by the fact that people interested in space science sometimes themselves argue that knowledge about our universe is best pursued with telescopes and robots, and for people for whom this knowledge is not very interesting anyway, that clinches it. Manned space exploration is a peculiarly pointless and expensive kind of male ego massage. For those suspicious of technology itself who yearn for a simpler, more bucolic way of life, spending money on technology is bad enough, but spending money on useless male ego massaging technology is about the worst thing imaginable. We have to get these thoughts up front and out in the open, because without addressing them head-on, I am preaching to the choir.
Before we turn to costs, which are surprisingly negligible, let us focus on reasons and values. For me, there are three things that bring me back again and again to space.
From time to time, I travel to the Oregon Coast to get away from it all, to have some solitude, to still all the inner chatter for a time and just be. There’s this one spot in particular I like to go to, which is a state park by the shore. To get there, I use my car and the roads, and when I get there, I take advantage of the state park facilities, especially maintained trails, observation platforms, etc. Because we tend to think of such spaces in terms of preventing them from being lost to other uses, protecting them from destruction, we tend to forget that part of the reason for that is so that we may experience the “spiritual” value of direct contact with the natural world, the sublimity of that, the inexpressible truths we learn from these sorts of experiences. Now suppose that I were to say that we should prevent people from going to state parks at all, in fact, we should not have any facilities that make these experiences possible, because you can just as easily learn about nature from wikipedia, or, in a pinch, a well-positioned webcam? Suppose I were to argue that you could provide one free hot meal a day for ten poor people for every park ranger you fired? Would you “go” for that? Maybe you should. Maybe maintaining state parks is just a silly way of symbolically massaging female egos…
Yes, that’s a reductio, and a strange one. But for me, one of the top three reasons for manned space exploration is that the sublimity of making other worlds experienceable directly to at least some human beings is “an end in itself.” It need not be justified in terms of scientific knowledge or job creation any more than state parks do. If you do not know about this sublimity, like some city kid who never had a field trip to a farm, I want to urge you to get out more. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy to experience what mountain climbing on Mars might be like. Watch the film For All Mankind and listen to the words of the people who walked on the moon, and the ineffable, transcendent character of the experience they had there. Notice that but for Apollo photography of Earth, there would very likely have never been an Earth Day at all. Now I know what you’re thinking. These are very small numbers of people having these experiences, far fewer than the numbers who utilize our state and national parks, and the costs we’re talking about are of an entirely different order. But the more human space exploration there is, the cheaper it becomes, and the more people there are who have access to these experiences. Before you judge them to be valueless, be sure you have some notion of what these experiences are, for they are not, at their heart, “male ego massage” but experiences of transcendence, awareness of how much vaster and stranger and more beautiful the universe is than we in our daily lives can easily imagine.
That leads me to the second reason. When I listen to music, read poetry or look at paintings, I never forget that in order for these things to be produced, and in order for them to subsist for any length of time, communities must exist to preserve them and to preserve the capacity for understanding and appreciating them. And yet these communities are tenuous, imperiled things for reasons that might not occur to you: because humanity itself is a tenuous, imperiled thing. I grew up during the Cold War, and apart from however that made me experience the “space race” it also taught me one thing that we now find inconceivable (or turn into entertainment because we find it inconceivable): humanity itself can die. This thought was the source of considerable moral pathos back in the day, and people at one time marched to ban nuclear weapons testing, to create nuclear-free zones, etc. Many people are especially moved by the thought that aggression, ego, nationalism, and a kind of short-sightedness about the consequences of our priorities and actions could some day inadvertently lead to our destruction; some of the most haunting writing I recall as a teenager was prophetic science fiction about nuclear war. The thought that our own short-sightedness might destroy us and everything we’ve created and value is a powerful one.
However, it is possible to be even more blind than short-sighted human beings. The dinosaurs were. Like us, they took for granted that the ground under their feet was solid and the sky above them was safe. But the universe is a very big place, and it is full of objects that are, you might say, nature’s own nukes. If you want to see what they can do, look at a photograph of the moon: all those craters were caused. We have the protection of the atmosphere, which burns up and disperses the small stuff that collides with us. The bigger stuff can be much more destructive, and on very rare occasions, can cause planetwide extinction events. Now we tend to think of extinction in terms of the human impact on other species, but actually extinction is the norm: 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, and our contribution to that total is negligible. Read the following sentence from Wikipedia, and think about it: “Most simply, any species that cannot survive and reproduce in its environment and cannot move to a new environment where it can do so, dies out and becomes extinct.” Flip that: in order to avoid dying out and becoming extinct, one thing a species must do is diversify the habitats in which lives, in the event that some habitats become impossible to live in. Of course we tend to think of this idea in terms of nonhuman species (no one likes to imagine their own death, let alone that of their whole species) and we think of the sum of all habitats as existing on earth. But in a very real sense, Earth is our “habitat”. Rare circumstances can make it impossible to survive and reproduce here. Diversifying our habitats means increasing the number of planets we sustainably live on, becoming a multiplanetary species. Colonizing other worlds not only opens up new possibilities of human experience, some of them beyond our imagining, it also means that it is less likely that a day will come when, owing to the blind stupidity of lifeless nature and our own tragic short-sightedness, everyone capable of experiencing Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and all their children, and children’s children, are dead.
Which brings me to children. Remember the old Morgenbesserism about how B.F. Skinner insists that we should not anthropomorphize human beings? We are too quick to say that viewing the world as a place filled with opportunity for adventure and wonderment is childish. (And it would be dreadfully sexist to say that it is merely boyish, that girls have no interest in adventure or wonderment.) But you know who should view the world childishly? Children should. We do them no service if we arrange our affairs so that the best we can tell them is that the world used to be filled with opportunities for adventure and wonderment, but now it is only filled with opportunities for sober maturity, labor and service. When things go well, children grow into mature adults whose useful contribution to the world is also one which they themselves find meaningful, and one of the central ways we come to find our adult activities meaningful is by connecting them with our childhood fantasies of what adult activities seemed thrilling to us. You can learn a lot about humanity, and about children, by noticing what kinds of careers children fantasize about. A firefighter has the power to save lives, a doctor has the power to heal and ease suffering. An astronaut has the power to transcend the everyday, to reveal new worlds. We can always tell children, yes, your dream is a possibility. For some of them, they will become their dream. For others they will do something less grand but meaningfully related to it. For some reason, one of the perennial favorites is “astronaut.” Do you want to turn the possibility of becoming an astronaut into another Santa story, another lie we indulge in until the child is old enough and strong enough to accept the truth that, no, there is no Santa, and there are no such things as astronauts? But a child is hope incarnate, and one of the greatest sins is to unnecessarily sadden a child.
Those are some of the reasons why, whenever I hear someone say that we can better spend the money on ourselves, on Earth, I think: this is to spend money on ourselves, on Earth. Also, if I may let the little boy that still lives in me have the last word: rockets are really cool.
Photo Credit: Orbits of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), NASA/JPL-Caltech.
A Viennese or German correspondent asked in a heavy accent of Armstrong, “Have you had any der-reams?” Dreams. Armstrong smiled. He couldn’t say he did. The smile was as quick to protect him as the quick tail flick of a long-suffering cow standing among horseflies in a summer meadow heat, yes, smile-and-flick went Armstrong, “I guess after twenty hours in a simulator, I guess I sometimes have dreams of computers.” (And Aquarius took careful notes on this, for his theory of the dream was not unrelated to the simulations of trajectory within the ephemerides.)
As the questions went on, the game was turning. The German might have asked his question about dreams with the happy anticipation that any material provided would offer him a feast – the symbols of the dreams were pot roast after all and gravied potatoes to the intellectual maw of a nice German head, but the answer, frustrating as all the answers had been, now succeeded in working up a counterpressure. Slowly, unmistakably, the intellectuals and writers on the dark side of the glass were becoming a little weary of the astronauts. Collins’ implacable cheerful cool, Aldrin’s doughty monk’s cloth of squaredom, Armstrong’s near-facetious smile began to pique their respect. The questions began to have a new tone, an edge, the subtlest string-quivering suggestion that intellectual contempt was finally a weapon not altogether to be ignored. Were these astronauts after all not much more than brain-programed dolts? And the contempt was a true pressure. For give an athlete brains, give an aviator brains, give an engineer a small concealed existence as presumptive poet, and whatever is not finished in the work of their ego, whatever is soft in their vanity, will then be exercised by the contempt of an intellectual. The writers were pushing Armstrong now.
Why, why ultimately, they were asking, is it so important to go to the moon? Man to man, they were asking, brain to brain, their leverage derived from the additional position of asking as writer to small-town boy: why is it important?
Armstrong tried to be general. He made a speech in fair computerese about the nation’s resources, and the fact that NASA’s efforts were now tapped into this root. Well, then, asked a dry voice, are we going to the moon only for economic reasons, only to get out of an expensive hole? No, said Armstrong.
Do you see any philosophical reason why we might be going? the voice went on, as if to imply: you are aware there is philosophy to existence as well?
Armstrong had now been maneuvered to the point where there was no alternative to offer but a credo, or claim that he was spiritually neuter. That would have violated too much in him. Yes, he blurted now, as if, damn them and damn their skills, they had wanted everything else of him this day, they had had everything else of him, including his full cooperation, now damn them good, they could have his philosophy too if they could comprehend it. “I think we’re going,” he said, and paused, static burning in the yaws of his pause, “I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges.” He looked a little defiant, as if probably they might not know, some critical number of them might never know what he was talking about, “It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul.” The last three words came out as if they seared his throat by their extortion. How privacy had been invaded this day. “Yes,” he nodded, as if noting what he had had to give up to writers, “we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”
— Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon