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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ideological criticism of space exploration

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2b


Ideological Criticisms

The ideological critics argue that wisdom does not lie along any road that exploration may discover. "People," admonished one of their forerunners, the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "know once and for all that nature wanted to keep you from being harmed by knowledge, just as a mother wrests a dangerous weapon from her child's hands; that all the secrets she hides from you are so many evils from which she protects you."[1] Rousseau's romanticism lives on among the ideological critics of space exploration. As they see it, the secrets our curiosity has pried from nature have brought us to the brink of disaster. We should have heeded Lao Tzu's warning: "[T]hose who would take the whole world to tinker with as they see fit . . . never succeed."[2] Ignoring this advice, Western science aims to control nature by interfering with it. In spite of all the so-called progress of the scientific era, Western science has not succeeded and will not succeed.

To come to this conclusion, these critics argue, we only need observe the trends set in the previous century: the population explosion; the massive use of resources at an ever increasing rate; and the unparalleled poisoning of the soil, the air, and the water of the Earth. It is doubtful that our planet can withstand this situation for long. Indeed, the Club of Rome Study, among others, has predicted a global environmental collapse around the middle of this century.[3] Even if this crisis does not spell doom for mankind, and it might, it deserves serious attention. The first thing we must determine is what makes all these dangerous trends possible. And, the ideological critics say, it does not take much to isolate the main factor: technology has coupled with the mentality of growth and together they have run amok. But surely technology on such a grand scale could not have existed without prior great advances in science.

And what is space exploration, these critics ask, if not the expansion of this mentality of growth and scientific development? Hence they find unacceptable the suggestion that space exploration can help us out of our dire straits. For that suggestion masks the imminence of the crisis and entreats us to engage in distracting pursuits – at a time when all our attention and effort should be concentrated on the abyss that is opening just a few careless steps ahead of us.

From this ideological perspective, space exploration is no more than another technological fix for problems that cry out for a different approach. The only solution is to realize that the crisis is upon us and to stop the activities that have created it. Above all, we must stop interfering with nature. Space exploration not only delays the real solution to the problem but is itself a symptom of the problem.

The ideological critics thus find little hope in the attempt to push science and technology beyond the confines of our natural habitat. Nor is the search for truth enough of a warrant. As Rousseau put it: "What dangers there are! What false paths when investigating the sciences! How many errors, a thousand times more dangerous than the truth is useful, must be surmounted in order to reach the truth? The disadvantage is evident, for falsity is susceptible of infinite combinations, whereas truth has only one form."[4] Wisdom dictates, then, neither investigation nor exploration, but living in harmony with nature.

An extreme fringe of ideological critics finds space exploration not just unwise, but positively evil. They fear, for instance, that a satanical science and technology will lead to the destruction of the human race at the hands of terrifying weapons. The Mercury Program may have sent astronauts on voyages of discovery, but its Atlas rockets became also the first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) poised to destroy human lives by the hundreds of millions. Some writers, such as Lewis Mumford, hold that big science and technology magnify some of the worst human traits: Not only have men wrought a brutal conquest of nature in "the effecting of all things possible" (in the words of that early promoter of science, the English philosopher Francis Bacon), but the social "megamachine" they have produced has developed means for the complete extermination of the race.[5] Others like C.S. Lewis think that space exploration is a manifestation of unchecked pride and power. These critics argue that we have no right to pollute the heavens with our fallen race. Only a return to a more spiritual way of life can save us from a degrading future.[6]

How true another of Rousseau's dictums must seem to these critics: "Men are perverse; they would be even worse if they had the misfortune to be born learned."[vii] If perchance there is a future, it will curse the day man reached for the stars.

In this day and age, however, neither this extreme view (which will be discussed in Chapter 9), nor the main ideological objection, comes as readily to mind as the social objections to be discussed in he next posting.

[1]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts," in The First and Second Discourses, St. Martin's Press, translation by Roger and Judith Masters, 1964, p. 47.

[2]. As quoted by E.F. Schumacher in Space Colonies, a Co-Evolution Book, S. Brand, ed., Penguin Books, 1977, p. 38.

[3]. The Club of Rome's main report was The Limits to Growth, Signet Books, 1972.

[4]. Rousseau, op. cit., p. 49.

[5]. See particularly Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine II: The Pentagon of Power, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970.

[6]. C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, MacMillan, 1967.

[vii]. Ibid.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Asking for the Moon

President Obama's decision to scrap America's return to the Moon has been met with dismay. Our space program, at least the part that involves humans in space, has been drifting for a long time, wasting our energy and resources first with the Space Shuttle and now with the Space Station. And now the one goal it had seems to have disappeared as well. If you think about it, though, how well conceived was that goal?

In the sixties, before the decade was out, we sent a man to the Moon and returned him safely to Earth. But it appeared that the Constellation program would not have been able to meet its goal of returning to the Moon by 2020. The first President Bush had also proposed a daring but even more misconceived goal for the human exploration of space: a mission to Mars so expensive (and, really, pointless) that it died a merciful death in no time.

Fortunately Jerry Zubrin came along and fired our imagination with sensible and exciting schemes for going to the red planet and beyond. His ideas really set the stage for a true colonization of the solar system. At least for a serious dialogue about it. Now we need him and more like him to offer the country new space adventures worth undertaking. This job cannot be left to NASA. The record of the past few decades makes that clear.

The Obama administrators said that they are willing to listen to new ideas. But those new ideas cannot be absurdly expensive. And they must give us a true foothold in space. Whatever step we first take must lead to another. And to another. This present misfortune might be a chance for a new beginning, for a new Golden Age of human exploration of space.

My purpose in this blog is to investigate the justification of space exploration. Why it is the sensible thing to do. I have only given a preview so far. The argument will be long, and it will take many paths. I do hope, however, that it will help frame the more practical questions, not of whether but of how to explore space. Understanding why sometimes helps us see how.

In the next few postings I will lay out the objections against space exploration. And after that the task of justification will truly begin.

In the meantime let me throw out for your consideration a little musing: Do we really need a super-heavy lift vehicle to set up an outpost on the Moon? Perhaps, and this feels as if it were coming from the top of my head -- but in all probability it has been far more carefully thought out by others before -- we could have modular spacecraft assembled in space. Let us make some real use of the space station! Since the modules need not be extremely heavy, they can be lifted into orbit by the sorts of rockets already operated by many countries, and ultimately by the private companies that are venturing into the heavens. Let astronauts assemble one module, say, for propulsion and control. Another would be the command module. A third would be the lunar lander. And each of these might actually be assembled, in space, from smaller modules. They could all be much simpler than what was done for the Apollo program or envisioned for the Constellation, for, among other reasons, none of them will have to be subjected to the high temperatures of reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. A module to carry supplies, for example, could be quite flimsy by today's standards. We could build the basic combination of modules in low orbit and modify it as needed it. That would be our ferry between low Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Eventually we should have at least two, one around the Earth and the other around the Moon. And eventually we should have at least two lunar landers. One on the surface and one in lunar orbit. And the beauty of it is that all the components of such a system would be reusable.

Our lunar outpost should perhaps use some of Gerard O'Neill's ideas. Put lunar materials into orbit and use them for manufacturing, if not solar power satellites as he had envisioned (and actually the idea may still be a good one, for the new designs are far smaller than those he proposed) at least a variety of spacecraft to carry scientific instrumentation around the solar system. In this way human exploration would support the unmanned scientific exploration of the cosmos, instead of taking money and resources away from it, as the Shuttle and the Space Station have done.

Perhaps some readers will have far better ideas. In my next posting I will return to my main task, but I would nevertheless hope to hear from a new generation of Zubrins.