Discovery!

By: Patrick Atwater | Jul 23, 2009 | 358 Views Opinion |

“One small step for man…”

In case you’ve been under a rock, last week was the 40th anniversary of man’s triumphant landing on the moon.  But the remembrance was bittersweet.  As we looked back on our past space triumphs, the yawning gap of the intervening years quickly became deafening.
Sure we’ve sent robots to Mars and done some experiments in space, but that pales in imagination.  The culmination of post-moon human exploration, the international space state, represents the worst of empty one world rhetoric.  Like the UN, it’s cloaked in lofty rhetoric and ideals but in reality mired in delay and dysfunction.  Even that mask of progress is slipping.  As Charles Krauthammer points out:

“America’s manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the United States will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We’ll be totally grounded. We’ll have to beg a ride from the Russians or perhaps even the Chinese.”

In retrospect, as things often are, this was inevitable.  The day after we landed on the moon NASA suffered a crisis of mission from which it has yet to recover.  We sent a man to the moon to prove to ourselves and the world that we were number one.  Tom Wolfe uses the analogy of single combat.  Russia had struck first with its champion, Sputnik, and we were symbolically powerless to defend against it.  Physics aside, they had seized the ultimate high ground.  But once we won the battle we created, there was nothing left to fight:c068mars-atmosphere2

“Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?”

That’s the intellectual malaise we find ourselves in now that we don’t have a clear enemy.(1)  The question of why just looms.  Can’t you see we have problems here on earth? The frequent economic arguments fail; really the commercial spin-offs were never worth it.  Trying to sell a space program on the advent of Tang just isn’t going to work.  Neither will nifty solutions like auctioning off land on Mars.(2)   Yet, as my Dad put it, it’s “hard to explain that everyone watched live the ‘walk on the Moon.’”  Just as its hard to explain the sort of thing that could bring old Irish cops to tears—the sort of thing that inspired a generation to study math and science in a way that a slick ad campaign never could.

The narrow methodology of cost-benefit analysis will never come out in favor of a mission to Mars.  Its costs are too high and its benefits too unknown.  But that’s the nature of discovery.  Columbus set sail to the East by going West; George Mallory climbed Mt. Everest simply because it was there; Neil Armstrong went to the moon because a President asked him to.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

It’s easy to dismiss all this talk of discovery and the wonder of space exploration as a trite luxury given the intractable nature of humanity’s problems and the finitude of our resources with which to fight them.  But starvation, pestilence, war, poverty, and disease are not going away anytime soon.  If anything the solution to these problems lies not simply in direct and easily implemented technocratic solutions, but also in the recognition of our common humanity.  Social redemption—which is of course man’s one hope—comes not merely at through the ladle of a soup kitchen but through our shared wonder of the universe.  Pushing out further and further unites us for a brief but tantalizing instant in a common mission and reminds us of the best qualities of man—curiosity, intelligence, compassion.  Big problems like humanity’s endemic fracture require big solutions; social hope, as instantiated by such a mission to mars, may be too dear not to try.

___________________________________
(1) We can’t very well go to Mars to fight terror.  Though I suppose it would have a certain poetic irony.
(2) Though there would be a certain capitalistic badassness to it.  From the commenter chernyshevsky on Democracy in America: I think the best way to finance the exploration of Mars is by auctioning off land on Mars. No one would be able to make use of their possession in the foreseeable future, of course. But I bet many people would be willing to pay just for the bragging right. Since the money would otherwise be spent on useless vanity stuff anyway, its reallocation is an enhancement to our economic potential. And when eventually humans can reach Mars will ease, it’s only fair that the descendants of those who financed the effort should benefit from the investment.

political-pictures-moon-landing-rocket-science

About the Author

Patrick Atwater is a senior at Claremont McKenna College, pursuing a dual degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). When not playing football or slaving away at the Rose, he spends his time theorizing about the California Dream, which Abhi is foolish enough to pay him for. He enjoys theoretical politics, skiing, Russian literature, genuine people, not swimming back, happiness, the outdoors, Michael Bay movies, trying new things, island paradises, the works of Amartya Sen, traveling, and making gross overgeneralizations.

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  • Alex Nazari

    Go here for great info about Apollo 11
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/apollo11turns40/

  • Alex Nazari

    Go here for great info about Apollo 11
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/apollo11turns40/

  • http://claremontconservative.com Charles C. Johnson

    1. Manned space flight is a total waste of money. Best to give it over to the Richard Bransons of the world. Columbus didn’t go to America just because a queen asked him. He went for a buck and many people came to America for just that reason.

    2. The Israelis already own a giant chunk of the moon for the exact reason you outligned.. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1167467657040

    Two state solution, anyone?

    • And Neil Armstrong went to the

      …or Einstein dedicated his life for a few dollars. Right.

    • seriously

      it isn’t necessary to comment on every single post. it’s obnoxious that you need to comment on everything and focus the discussion on your views.

    • Charles vs. Charles

      This, Charles, explains why the true worth of things cannot simply be determined by the price people are willing to pay. The reality is that the Richard Bransons of the world will never be able to finance such an awesome feat (or at least as quickly) as the U.S. government can. And sorry, the purpose of government, like space exploration, is not simply to make the citizens rich. Consider Professor Kesler’s beautiful piece on the Columbia explosion, which defends the nobility and political importance of space exploration: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.919/article_detail.asp. Here’s how it ends:

      “In the happy faces of the Columbia crew before liftoff and while in orbit, we saw something that had nothing to do with spinoffs or the accumulation of knowledge: the sheer fun of the adventure. Their joy was connected, of course, to the mission’s riskiness, for both as participants and observers we recognize that great and noble deeds, including deeds of exploration, make a kind of claim on the human soul. It was not the crew’s racial, ethnic, and international diversity that made the ship’s loss so poignant. It was the fact that this multifarious equality culminated in so many expressions of human excellence. Theirs was, in that sense, a very American story.

      “We need to remind ourselves that most exploring has been tied, one way or another, to empire; to the military, diplomatic, and commercial dictates of politics. This consideration, so clear in the space program’s formative anxieties about Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, has faded from mind, leaving the space program adrift. We honor the Columbia Seven best by thinking boldly about space exploration and exploitation, commercial and governmental. When he stepped off the ladder and onto the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong declared that he had taken a giant step ‘for mankind,’ and he had. But he planted on the lunar surface an American flag.”

  • http://claremontconservative.com Charles C. Johnson

    1. Manned space flight is a total waste of money. Best to give it over to the Richard Bransons of the world. Columbus didn’t go to America just because a queen asked him. He went for a buck and many people came to America for just that reason.

    2. The Israelis already own a giant chunk of the moon for the exact reason you outligned.. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1167467657040

    Two state solution, anyone?

    • And Neil Armstrong went to the moon for money…

      …or Einstein dedicated his life for a few dollars. Right.

    • seriously

      it isn’t necessary to comment on every single post. it’s obnoxious that you need to comment on everything and focus the discussion on your views.

    • Charles vs. Charles

      This, Charles, explains why the true worth of things cannot simply be determined by the price people are willing to pay. The reality is that the Richard Bransons of the world will never be able to finance such an awesome feat (or at least as quickly) as the U.S. government can. And sorry, the purpose of government, like space exploration, is not simply to make the citizens rich. Consider Professor Kesler’s beautiful piece on the Columbia explosion, which defends the nobility and political importance of space exploration: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.919/article_detail.asp. Here’s how it ends:

      “In the happy faces of the Columbia crew before liftoff and while in orbit, we saw something that had nothing to do with spinoffs or the accumulation of knowledge: the sheer fun of the adventure. Their joy was connected, of course, to the mission’s riskiness, for both as participants and observers we recognize that great and noble deeds, including deeds of exploration, make a kind of claim on the human soul. It was not the crew’s racial, ethnic, and international diversity that made the ship’s loss so poignant. It was the fact that this multifarious equality culminated in so many expressions of human excellence. Theirs was, in that sense, a very American story.

      “We need to remind ourselves that most exploring has been tied, one way or another, to empire; to the military, diplomatic, and commercial dictates of politics. This consideration, so clear in the space program’s formative anxieties about Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, has faded from mind, leaving the space program adrift. We honor the Columbia Seven best by thinking boldly about space exploration and exploitation, commercial and governmental. When he stepped off the ladder and onto the surface of the moon, Neil Armstrong declared that he had taken a giant step ‘for mankind,’ and he had. But he planted on the lunar surface an American flag.”

  • Sasi Desai

    Charles

    I think what the person above is trying to say is that not all scientific advancements have an immediate and/or obvious economic gain, but with time, and patience, most will.

    When Marconi invented the radio, he hardly thought of using it to play music and sell ads on radio stations. Same with LCD. At it’s outset, you never thought you’d use it on televisions…
    Inventors don’t invent based on people’s whims and fancies, people’s whims and fancies change depending on inventions and scientific advancement.

    Of course, the person above could have phrased it better and been wo/man enough to say it without the shield of anonymity to protect him/her.

  • Sasi Desai

    Charles

    I think what the person above is trying to say is that not all scientific advancements have an immediate and/or obvious economic gain, but with time, and patience, most will.

    When Marconi invented the radio, he hardly thought of using it to play music and sell ads on radio stations. Same with LCD. At it’s outset, you never thought you’d use it on televisions…
    Inventors don’t invent based on people’s whims and fancies, people’s whims and fancies change depending on inventions and scientific advancement.

    Of course, the person above could have phrased it better and been wo/man enough to say it without the shield of anonymity to protect him/her.

  • Sasi Desai

    My bad…

    “He finally opened a commercial trans-Atlantic radio service in 1907 between another station near Glace Bay (“Marconi Towers”) and Clifden, Ireland, he was using a wavelength of about 5000 metres (60 kHz). This provided reliable daytime communications and usable, but more variable, night-time communications.”

    Looks like Marconi did envision it…

    Thanks for the heads up Charles… Nevertheless – My point still holds. Not all inventors envision a market for their product…

  • Sasi Desai

    My bad…

    “He finally opened a commercial trans-Atlantic radio service in 1907 between another station near Glace Bay (“Marconi Towers”) and Clifden, Ireland, he was using a wavelength of about 5000 metres (60 kHz). This provided reliable daytime communications and usable, but more variable, night-time communications.”

    Looks like Marconi did envision it…

    Thanks for the heads up Charles… Nevertheless – My point still holds. Not all inventors envision a market for their product…

  • Charlie Sprague

    “Trying to sell a space program on the advent of Tang just isn’t going to work”

    FYI,
    Tang was not invented as a by-product of the space program, its a common myth: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/ipp/home/myth_tang.html

    I know many people who frequently comment on the Forum don’t trust what the government prints, but maybe you’ll believe NASA since it is denying credit for something.

  • Charlie Sprague

    “Trying to sell a space program on the advent of Tang just isn’t going to work”

    FYI,
    Tang was not invented as a by-product of the space program, its a common myth: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/ipp/home/myth_tang.html

    I know many people who frequently comment on the Forum don’t trust what the government prints, but maybe you’ll believe NASA since it is denying credit for something.