Requiem for the Space Program

Discovery flies over Washington, DC. Photo by Valerie Pickering from flickr (creative commons).

“Requiem”, though we tend to think of the word in reference to a Catholic Mass said (or sung) for the dead, literally means “rest”.  And that’s the way I think of the United States space program, at rest. On Tuesday the Space Shuttle Discovery cruised into Washington, DC, buzzed the monuments a few times, and landed at Dulles Airport to become part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy center. I was actually in DC, but missed it because I was in a conference session. My wife and daughter did get to see it from Eastern Market.

I’m not really sad that I missed the fly-by, though I would have liked to have seen that and shared that moment with the crowds. And I’m not really sad that the Space Shuttle program is over. I’m ambivalent about the many declarations and missives decrying the death of the manned space program. Before you stop reading and throw something at your computer screen like a good primate, let me explain.

I’m a true believer in space flight as a necessary, and stirring, future for humanity. I’m an unassuming, non-Spock-ear-wearing but yet dedicated Trekkie. I would love to see a Space Elevator built in my lifetime, and, like many people (and most of my readers I bet) I once wished still wish for the opportunity to see the Earth from space. So what explains my seeming treachery?

Three reasons. First, I’m trying to take the long view. Second, I’m trying to be optimistic in my long view. Third, my long view is not governed by patriotism, but by humanism.

Humanity has come so very far in so little time. We’ve done great things, but also terrible things. We stand at the dawn of a new age, clearly, though I’m not sure what future historians might call it. The machine age? The electronic age? The digital age? The difficulty in choosing a label suggests that humanity is going through something complex, and difficult. We’ve arguably created something stronger than natural selection, the ability to engineer (sloppily and without intentionality or thought to consequence) our environment and our bodies, and manipulate our minds. Midcentury, we obtained the power to elevate ourselves above Earth, and the power to destroy most life on the lithosphere. The vehicle for both was ironically the same, a rocket.

I empathize with humanity’s plight. That’s a lot of power and responsibility, and looking at the first fifty years of the last century, there wasn’t much there to suggest we deserved, were ready for, or had even a slim chance of surviving, such a terrifying advance in knowledge and know-how. Taking the long view helps to see this in context; a tiny moment, momentous for sure, but tiny nonetheless, one small step for (hu)mankind into the future. We still have so far to go. There’s so many things for us to get past, blinders and superstitions we need to shed.

The manned space program served a few admirable purposes. It proved the possibility (and great difficulty and expense) of sending people off into space, and in accomplishing this huge task, it raised human consciousness about our race’s precarious placement in the universe; it gave us our first view of ourselves as inhabitants of a single, precious planet, and that can’t be underestimated.

But that’s not where we are now. It’s not where we have been since the end of Apollo. We’ve been stuck in low earth orbit, and the Space Shuttle program was by some estimation a boondoggle, a very complex, expensive, and ultimately dangerous way of getting a bit off the planet and then falling back to it and barely missing, and doing this again and again. A charming trick but not really space travel.

The early space age was filled with stirring imaginings about space stations and interplanetary missions, colonies on the moon, revolutions and new branches of humanity. The great mistake of the futurists was primarily one of time scale and secondarily one of betting on the wrong horse. They underestimated how far humanity would get in computing and biology, but far overshot how far into space we would get. In other words, their view wasn’t long enough.

This is where optimism steps in and offers an extended hand, just before I step off the edge into the abyss. There are signs that humanity might just make it. Along with the stories of state terror, blistering technological change, and ruptures in the fabric of daily life unprecedented in humanity’s many thousands of years, the last century was also a stirring story of social movements, of vibrant thinking about the future, of experimenting with different ways of associating. Is it enough to get us through? I’m not sure. But people are resilient.

Especially the Chinese ones. And this brings me to my third point. In discussion the other day, a colleague was decrying the loss in know-how that was commonplace during the Apollo program. We couldn’t get to the moon now if we wanted to, the knowledge just isn’t there any more, he said. By there, he meant here. The United States.

It’s not just getting the moon that the US has forgotten how to do. My friend John is trying to start a sandle factory in Geneva, NY, once a minor star in the firmament of the Great Lakes Industrial Belt and now just another empty socket on the rust-belt crown. When his machines break down there is nobody nearby to fix them. Someone has to come from China. This is what off-shoring has done to us. The capacity to build, to make, to fix, is simply not here in many sectors.

Don’t get me wrong, the United States has a lot of promise, a lot of beauty, a lot of very bright and creative people; but it is also saddled with a lot of challenges. Like the volatile mix of guns, fundamentalist religion and poor education. Like a burdensome military occupation of pretty much the entire globe that breeds resentment and sucks resources away from the homeland, where roads are cracked, bridges are rusting, and schools look like prisons, except with less funding.

These challenges are daunting. And they need to be met. I’m no longer sure that now is the time for ambitious manned missions to Mars. I’d rather spend the money on that than new aircraft carriers, which arguably exist only to protect the power they themselves project. It’s likely we don’t have the resources for either. If we don’t fix health care and education, attend to our infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, figure out the sustainability question, then what will there be to defend so aggressively?

Moreover, who will be prepared to meet the challenge laid down by such provocative stunts as going to Mars? Light pollution has robbed the inspiring view of the cosmos from planet earth that inspired the astronauts, the scientists, the engineers. And maybe that’s why space shots came to be such ho-hum events. It’s been a while since astronautics has captured the American imagination. Perhaps that’s because we can’t see where there is to go anymore.

The opportunity costs of the space program were high for the US. What would have been a better investment: to send a handful of people to the Moon, or create a modern educational system that gave every student as firm a grasp of critical thinking and scientific method as they had capacity? What position would be in now if we had invested then in the boldest, grandest, most difficult educational project ever imagined, and instead put industry and slide rules and brains to tackling that problem? It is actually a choice we made, as funding had to come from somewhere and the other thing on the table was the ambitious educational and anti-poverty programs of Kennedy and Johnson. Again, militarism seemed then and seems now to be off the table for cuts, so what’s the best of limited choices? (If you’d argue that militarism shouldn’t be off the table, then please argue that. Only the odd bedfellows of Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich seem willing to speak that unspeakable idea.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese might be ready to push things forward. I’m okay with that. China has a long, long history and has added much richness to the human tradition. Is it their turn to take a few small steps for (hu)mankind? Why should that bother me? Nothing says the future is American. Quite the contrary, history should teach us that the future belongs largely to the unexpected upstart, not the lumbering juggernaut. Moreover, the most convincing of the space-faring rhetoric has always called to us from a place beyond national boundaries and xenophobia. If Neil Armstrong could represent all of humanity in a single step, why can’t a Chinese Taikonaut?

China has it’s problems, too, vast and difficult ones (isn’t everything in China vast?). Maybe what it needs is a rigorous space program that inspires its intelligent young people to aspire to something greater than outconsumering the masters of consumerism (us).  Then again, maybe it needs to invest in some alternative energy systems. Those choices aren’t ours to make.

So there it is, my complex thoughts on the space program. No hyperlinks, no references, just some thoughts thought and shared.

So  I guess in the end I am a little sad. But not for the end of the manned space program. More for the predicament that we placed ourselves in. The end of the manned space program is just a symptom of a wider failure of the imagination. I think the cure is closer to home, in the very wonder about the universe that we can cultivate around us. Most people have no idea what humanity has come to understand about the universe…fixing that might be our best bet for a future, here on earth and farther afield.

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