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July 23, 2009

by Patrick Atwater

“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:

“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.

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