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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Social Critics of Space Exploration

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2c

Social Criticisms of Space Exploration

The typical social critics oppose space exploration on what we may call humanitarian grounds. They cannot justify spending billions of dollars to find out what the Moon is made of at a time when hunger and poverty are rampant on our own planet. As they see it, space exploration takes money, resources, and talent away from helping people in need and from improving the quality of life for everybody. The human condition, one might quip, ought to take precedence over the condition of alien atmospheres and surfaces.

Unlike their ideological counterparts, some of these social critics may even think that space exploration is a good thing. They may agree that producing knowledge and satisfying man's intellectual curiosity and thirst for adventure are all worthwhile goals. But they may also think that opera is a good thing without being prepared to spend billions of dollars in its support. The problem is not what space exploration tries to accomplish but rather the commitment of resources upon which other human needs may have a larger claim.

Now, when we speak of improving the human condition and satisfying other human needs, it is important to be specific. Presumably there are areas of human suffering that come starkly to mind and demand immediate attention. Indeed there are: Millions, perhaps billions, of people in the world suffer hunger and malnutrition, lack proper housing, education and opportunity, and are afflicted by myriad diseases. But even this list does not convey the full extent of misery. To do so, we must attempt to understand the hopelessness, the sense of being at the whim of tragedy – a tragedy brought about by nature, by man, or by man's indifference. These are the burdens we should lift from the people of the Earth before we go looking under the rocks of far-away worlds.

The two categories of criticism – social and ideological – are by no means clear-cut. Many critics would combine them or deviate in important respects from both. Still other critics may oppose space exploration on the prosaic grounds that it is not cost-effective.[1] Nevertheless, I think that my presentation of the main objections captures the essential challenge to the supporters of space exploration. Those supporters will, therefore, have to show, first, that in exploring the cosmos humankind is pursuing goals (or satisfying inclinations) that are in themselves worthwhile. And second, that such pursuit does not proceed at the expense of even more worthwhile goals.

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