This is pretty much recycled from this channel. But the relevance is greater now than when it was written.
Perhaps this should have been posted under “Post-Conservative Modern”. Relevance? What relevance? A Deep Thinker with a tech fetish waxes silly about spaceflight. He’s right about Sagan; the rest, not so much. Human spaceflight is a dumb idea however you try to justify it. Spending federal dollars we don’t have on a distorted religious impulse is even dumber.
1.) Now is not the time. We are skating near the edge of financial meltdown. We can rebuild the capability later on, and do not need to shed too many tears over the American aerospace establishment’s radical diminishment. Yes, certain sorts of knowledge have been and will be lost. But we don’t have very many stone-masons of late-19th-century-quality around any more either, but we could recapture most of that quality if we decided to dramatically up the demand for fine stone-work.
2.) (And bobo-porcher me, my stone-mason example is reminding me I’d probably rather want however many fine new public buildings we could get for the Mars money than the mission itself. I get more inspired by the day-by-day usable grandeur of something like the New York Public Library Reading Room than by the prospect of maybe a month of Mars panoramas on the telly.)
3.) The Moon was a natural target for Right Stuff aspiration–it is seen by the naked eye as another world, and involves a voyage that is a matter of days. A manned Mars mission is drawn out, very, very expensive, and just cannot answer the “Why?” question as intuitively for nearly as many people. With the Moon, the question could be answered with
a) It’s not just there, it’s right there.
b) We’ve never done such a thing.
And we could add:
c) The Cold War with the USSR is a dangerous fact of life (not a conjecture like Peter’s coming-conflict with China) and doing this will be a boost for our side. Indeed, the Wolfe essay Peter’s Big Think piece links to makes this THE reason people embraced it.
With Mars, the “because it’s there” rationale has to face the “but so are Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons…where do we stop” response.
And we have done such a thing–we sent our guys through space, landed them on another world, a brought them back.
4.) So a Mars mission, particularly in our lifetime, would actually feel like a rather forced effort to inspire America and rekindle our romance with science.
5.) In time, more provisions to blow-up or redirect Earth-bound Comets/Asteroids, and to set up moon/space stations, can address Peter’s apparent fear of “oops”-type or “unprepared”-type species extinctions. The market incentives for moon/asteroid materials might be the key to avoiding the collective action problem faced here. But otherwise, the risk is too hypothetical to function as a winning public argument for doing something (as opposed to not doing something, as with Yucca Mountain).
6.) Let’s let our national purposes come to us naturally, shown to us by the needs of the time as was the case with JFK’s push, and…
7.) …let’s not entirely dismiss the danger of wanting to be like Xerxes watching his army parade by, or the Babel-onians watching the tower go up. Wilson Carey McWilliams said the following in the 1984 essay “The Bible,” now contained in the new book plugged below:
“The individualistic city, consequently, must seek out new and ever-greater projects… Hence Babel’s reason for building its tower to heaven: ‘lest we be scattered upon the face of the whole earth.’ Because such cities are compelled to attempt more and more ambitious projects, however, they will inevitably attempt the impossible. When that occurs, it is not really necessary for God to confuse a city’s speech; the citizens of Babel never really spoke the same language. Yet that story, with all its contemporary echoes, suggests another kind of city, one that would cultivate common speech and internal justice, eschewing expansion and the quest for mastery.” (35)
The Front Porch Republic folks tend to look at a statement like that and read Empire for “impossible project” and Capitalism for “expansion,” whereas I think those two words are often deeply deluding, and, I think the “impossible project” that really threatens to break us apart is the Never Enough“blue social model” and its attendant cultural house of cards of aPolitical Liberalism shorn of any “Comprehensive Doctrines.”
Even though I think for Big Think to be what it claims it has to make a place for those like Peter, I’m more with Mike Walsh here. Making arguments about present policy because the survival of the species will depend on being able to move beyond Earth 30,000 or whatever it is years from now, instead of concentrating on the survival of the U.S.A. 300 years from now, is thinking that is just Too Big. For if America falls apart nobody will be going to live on Mars for a very long time, because everybody will be finding out just how much Mars really lives in us.
Maybe modernity (or Christianity?) put an end to the city in speech as the polestar. Maybe the best that can be hoped for is to direct the drive for more in ennobling rather than soul-shriveling directions. Maybe frugality makes sense only as a means, not as an end. So then what are we going to spend all our money on? What do we want with our technological mastery (of which everyone — Obama, Newt, Romney, Paul — is asking for more)? Merely the extension of lives devoted to comfort and consuming? No! We wish to do great things, things worthy of being remembered. We need space because in the age of the death of God, the range of options for civilizational projects is, shall we say, rather limited. The relevance lies precisely in the current moment’s fixation on budget tightening.
Such a project might feel forced until we all tune in to the television to watch the first humans land on Mars — or to update it — until we all start getting electronic updates on the astronauts once they’ve left earth orbit, and have ventured further into space than any human ever has. Even better than sports as a celebration of human, and dare I say, manly virtue.
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