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Thursday, December 8, 2011




This is not to say that we are always looking out for the interests of the species, few of us are. But then we are practically never looking out for the interests of a stranger, although if we see him collapse on the street many of us would feel a strong impulse to come to his assistance. Similarly, the appropriate time to recognize the interests of the species is when we become aware that they are threatened. And in any event, insofar as we accept the responsibility of deciding for the species, the argument that ought to work is that which takes the interests of the species into account.

I think that the social critics should be, on the whole, very well satisfied by now. But the ideological critics are a different matter altogether. They may agree, though grudgingly, that given the present situation space science provides a possible solution. Or even, that given the present dilemma, space science looks essential. Nevertheless, they may want to challenge the description of the dilemma and insist on a solution more to their liking. And their alternative is this. Space science looks imperative because of the enormous pressure that the incredibly large population is putting on the environment, particularly when that population demands increasingly larger per capita shares of energy and other resources. But is it not obvious that if our numbers were significantly reduced, and our demands for consumption lowered, then the pressure on the environment would be relieved?

Suppose that we institute programs that would lower the total population of the planet. First we cut it in half in fifty years. With other measures that would involve a simpler standard of living and reduced energy consumption per capita, this would certainly accomplish much to make our problems manageable. Suppose then that we continue to cut in half the population of the Earth every fifty years, until after a few centuries the impact of humans on the environment is no longer a threat to the entire planet. China is already taking stern measures to reduce its population drastically. It seems, then, that there are alternatives to the exploration of space.

Now, how could such a momentous decision to reduce population be implemented on a global scale? The amount of coercion in China is considerable, in spite of the fact that China is a relatively homogenous society in which a dominant political ideology facilitates near unanimity of opinion. But I am not sure it is reasonable to suppose that anything short of widespread and unmitigated disaster could bring together the different hostile factions in the world to put such a global program into effect. The disaster may come. Although by then it might be too late. And even if the struggle could still succeed, the misery visited upon mankind may be too high a price to pay, particularly if space exploration could have kept disaster at bay. It does not seem like much of an alternative after all.

And what leverage would the Wendell Berrys of the world employ to launch the conflicting powers that be on a joint enterprise of such monstrous proportions? Surely not moral persuasion and enticements to instill what he calls good character. Appeals of that sort would not have a prayer, at least not in time to avoid the disaster which gives such views an air of reasonableness, however they may have to be accompanied by resignation. So it is unclear just how feasible this ideological alternative is, but two considerations would seem to buttress this position. The first is that we have to do something about the population growth anyway. Space exploration will not be in a position to play a significant role in the reduction of the Earth's population for a long time. If we could take a million people a year into space, which we cannot at the present, it would take thousands of years before we began to make a dent in the amount of population we have now, let alone on a population that is growing at today’s dangerous rate. We have centuries, at the most.

The second consideration is that we better protect the Earth by nurturing respect toward it than by letting people think that we can always move onto another nest. For otherwise we imagine that spoiling our present nest is regrettable but not an insurmountable loss. Learning to live within the confines acceptable to our mother planet is a wiser policy because we already know that we can lead dignified and fruitful lives here. By contrast, learning to live in space is only a promise. Can we bet the future of mankind on it? The greatest gift we can make to posterity is a beautiful Earth and the strength of character to live in harmony with it. In other words, we accomplish more by preserving the natural balances that have been so accommodating to human beings in the past, and by restoring such balances where modern life has already disrupted them. The result of exercising greater moral responsibility toward the world is a better world.

Space exploration, on the other hand, presumably would continue the disruption of the natural balance. If technology has already caused a mess, why should we expect better? Moreover, space exploration would be worse than a necessary evil, for it is not an enterprise that we can engage in just once before returning to a more pastoral existence. As Berry says, in condemning the scientific mind, "(1) It would commit us to a policy of technological `progress' as a perpetual bargaining against `adverse effects.' (2) It would make us perpetually dependent on the `scientific' foretelling and control of such effects -- something that never has worked adequately, and that there is no good reason to believe ever will work adequately." Why could it not work? Because "when you overthrow the healthful balance of the relationships within a system --biological, political, or otherwise -- you start a ramifying sequence of problems...that is not subject to prediction, and that can be controlled only by the restoration of balance." Berry's warning is that "if we elect to live by such disruptions then we must resign ourselves to a life of desperate (and risky) solutions: the alternation of crisis and `breakthrough' described by E.F. Schumacher."[1]

How reasonable an alternative is this to the course of action I have recommended? The first thing that deserves comment is this matter of disruption and restoration of balance. A very early and rather important disruption of natural balance took place when life was born and changed the chemistry of the planet. Another crucial and massive disruption of balance came when the oxygen liberated by life "poisoned" the atmosphere and the oceans. And this was followed by the adaptation of life to oxygen, with the subsequent destruction of the cozy arrangements between early life and the environment. Disruptions of similar magnitude were brought about by the appearance of complex organisms, by the formation of an ozone layer, which made the land available to life --would it have been better for life to stay in the oceans? -- and then by the return of vertebrates to the water, which led to whales and dolphins. Ever since, the evolution of life has created new forms that have remade the environment anew, destroying the very memory of whatever balance had been struck previously, and leaving at best a few scattered fossils of what the Berrys of the time would have insisted on preserving.

The fact of the matter is that life has often created new opportunities for itself, unwittingly no doubt, and has always changed the balance between its different forms --most of which are now extinct. The biota of the planet has remade itself many times over. The natural balance of the ideological critics is merely a fiction, a temporary arrangement that would change even if there were no human beings around to mess things up. And surely life does not exhaust the range of natural causes that have brought about massive disruptions of balance. Do volcanic eruptions, droughts, and asteroids always make for small reversible changes? What may we say, incidentally, of the galactic disruption that forced the collapse of the pre-solar cloud into a planetary system? Of the earlier obliteration of what may have looked like states of cosmic equilibrium, and thus of natural balance? Which balance is it that we are morally obliged to restore?

Clearly humans are not the only creatures that transform their environment and interfere with it. R.C. Lewontin, S. Rose, and L.J. Kamin point out that "all living beings both destroy and create the resources of their own continued life. As plants grow, their roots alter the soil chemically and physically. The growth of white pines creates an environment that makes it impossible for a new generation of pine seedlings to grow up, so hardwoods replace them. Animals consume the available food and foul the land and water with their excreta. But some plants fix nitrogen, providing their own resources; people farm; and beavers build dams to create their own habitat."[2]

The issue is not, then, one of disrupting balance and interfering with the environment. Perfect balance can be found only right before the birth of the universe and perhaps right after its death. Even then we do not really know. And to avoid interfering with nature would be out of character for living things, while impossible to achieve anyway. The issue is rather one of interfering wisely, and of preserving (approximately) certain balances that offer the best compromises for a worthwhile existence on this planet. But how are we going to achieve these goals without the kind of global and long-term knowledge that we have discussed in this book?

To say that we should diminish the presence of man--in numbers and in scope of action--so that nature may run its course as undisturbed as possible, assumes that man is a scourge upon the land, and it denies man the very liberties we give to the rest of living things. But even so, how far should that diminution go? And at what price in human misery? I think that this attitude, to force man back, also assumes that there can be no middle ground between the obliteration of the environment and the reduction of man to insignificance. For at any place in the middle we will see a rather large human interaction with the environment. We are sinners, it appears, and now the time has come to pay for our sins. Without this general mea culpa in the hearts of the large majority of human beings, it is difficult to see why they should act in what surely will seem to many as directly against their interests and those of their descendants. Should we not instead gain knowledge of the world in order to determine what is wise? No. These critics would rather do penance than science.

Nevertheless, as long as our dealings with nature involve a creative element, as long as the transformation of the environment is inevitable, with or without our participation, it seems more sensible to learn the secrets of nature so we can act with our eyes open. Berry and his cohorts may not think highly of many of the opportunities that space exploration may open to us. But why should they bar others from taking advantage of them? What right do they have to decide for others what good character is and to insure that nothing else will have greater priority? Their case is based on a myth about nature. And that is only half the trouble.

The present rate of population growth may well be unsustainable, and for space exploration to make a difference it would have to provide means of carrying billions of people into space, a feat that is not in the cards in the foreseeable future, although eventually it will. In the meantime, space science may help us monitor the pressure on the environment and avail our planet of the resources of the solar system. Moreover, let us remember that in the long run the workings of nature, if man does nothing about them, are bound to create first a most unpleasant world for our descendants and then bring extinction upon them. Having science is no guarantee that those things will not happen. We cannot be assured that the desired level of knowledge is possible within whatever time limits infringe on our future. Nor can we be certain that just because we have that knowledge we will choose according to the best interests of the species. But we can be sure that, without the global knowledge that requires space science, we will simply have no choice to make. Our descendants will suffer for it; and eventually our species will disappear at the earliest cosmic inconvenience.

A species full of self-hatred may well choose such a path. But is the appeal of presumed atonement the most fitting choice for us to make? That ascetic choice may buy us a bit of time, but for what? In the long run it leads us straight into a grave. The other choice, the one that really lets nature run its course offers the opportunities for expansion and diversification that so far life has been fortunate to procure for itself. I refer to it as the one that really lets nature run its course because it recognizes that we, too, are part of nature. There is no question in my mind that in this case the way of nature has the potential for greater wisdom.

Sometimes it is said that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, and that since we are not likely to have complete knowledge through space or any other kind of exploration, we are better off not embarking on this scientific enterprise in the first place. But we have seen, clearly I hope, that even though a bit of knowledge can be dangerous, there is no long future in ignorance.

My point is not that environmental concerns are unimportant. Just the opposite. They are very important and we should take the steps necessary to make decisions based on the most comprehensive picture of the Earth's environment we can obtain. Only then we can pay proper attention to the interests of our species. What I argue against is the rigid demand to act on myths about nature that have little more than mysticism in their favor.

The decision is, of course, not mine to make. My intent has been to bring before the reader the considerations relevant to these large issues and the arguments that are most suitable to them. I hope I have shown that the very heart of space exploration contains within it the best justification of the entire enterprise. In doing my small part to reduce the dimming of starlight, I trust that, as H. G. Wells said, “Life, for ever dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.”[3]

[1] Op. cit., p. 83.

[2] Lewontin, R.C., S. Rose, and L. J. Kamin. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[3] H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, 1920, from

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chapter 10A Again

I was unhappy with my previous posting, and so I decided to rewrite it and add to it the material I had planned to post today.



H.G. Wells said once that our choice is the universe or nothing.[1] And if the argument of this book is sound, he was not that far off the mark. The way humans look at the world, the way they interact with the world, gives them a panorama of problems and opportunities that will change as they strive to satisfy their curiosity: a dynamic science leads to a constantly evolving panorama. To grow is to adapt to a changing environment or to a variety of environments. Given the long-term prospects of the human species, to grow scientifically, into the cosmos, is to hedge our bets against extinction.

Two important questions come to mind at this stage. The first is: why should survival be a value? In particular, why should human survival be a value? If we justify space exploration by reference to survival and to the material improvement of human life, the social critics should be satisfied. Their objectives, in the long run, require that we go into space. But some of the ideological critics may prove more ornery. Thus Wendell Berry supposes that the abundance of resources in space will produce bad character, for good character requires the discipline of finitude.[2]

That the survival of the human species is a value may seem beyond question to most of us, although there might be some who prefer extinction to bad character (not that I wish to suggest here that Berry would go that far) or to decreased chances of spiritual salvation. But even overwhelming agreement on the value of survival might not satisfy some thinkers in their more philosophical moments. It seems that we value survival very highly, they might say, but why should we so keen on leaving behind imperfect creatures much like ourselves?

In such philosophical moments, questioning a value is normally taken as a demand to identify some other, more basic value from which the first one is derived. This is similar to how we presumably justify actions: "This is the right action because it will bring about X and X is a good thing." But the more basic value (or good thing) that does the justifying can itself be questioned, so we then look for an even more basic value (or good thing) until eventually we arrive at a good thing that is not merely good but good in itself, that is, whose goodness does not depend on anything but its own nature. Why do we work? Because we get paid? Why is money a good thing? Because we can use to buy food and clothes, pay the rent, etc. Why do we want to do those things? Because they make us happy. And in happiness, Aristotle thought, we find an end that is complete and self-sufficient.[3] The question “why do we want to be happy” makes no sense. Aristotle had in mind not transient happiness, but a happy life as a whole. He also thought it was obvious that the happiness of a society was of greater value than the happiness of a single individual. Of course, there seems to be a clear connection between human happiness and human survival.

Since this approach grounds ethical justification on a human value, human happiness, some may object that it is therefore relative to our own species. This objection seems to underpin the notion that we should not prefer the good of our own species to that of other living things in our planet, or even to the rocks of another planet. Oftentimes the objection is expressed as the view that ethics and other disciplines of value are "objective" only insofar as their laws are eternal and universal. As characterized by Peter Singer, who criticizes it, the view claims that "The laws of Ethics...existed before there was life on our planet and will continue to exist when the sun has ceased to warm the earth."[4] Moreover, eternal (absolute) laws of ethics seem to demand eternal (absolute) values. Thus a relative value such a human happiness (or human survival) cannot provide an adequate justification for our actions.

Absolute values, however, are not all they are cracked up to be. Conflict may arise between two or more absolute values. Or an absolute value may be of small significance in a particular context and thus should yield to relative values. Besides, absolute laws could in principle be derived from values that always depend on context or on subjective preference, i.e. relative. For example, consider utilitarianism (i.e., roughly, the view that the balance of good vs. bad consequences of an action--its utility--determine its rightness, given the utilities of the alternative actions). At least one version of utilitarianism would calculate utility in accordance with the values assigned by the individuals who would enjoy or suffer the consequences of the action being contemplated.[5]

I need not show that human survival is an absolute value, or that there must be an absolute law of ethics that gives survival a very high priority. I appeal to it in order to show that space exploration is in the interest of the species. When I point out that space exploration can save us from the dangers posed by asteroids and the sun’s becoming a red giant, I give a strong reason to pursue it.

A reason in matters of prudence, or of ethics, need not be one that appeals to an absolute ground of any kind. A reason must be a reason for action, and so it must be aimed to convince the intended audience. This is not to say that efficacy alone is sufficient to commend reasons. The fallacious reasoning of much advertisement may well appeal to the masses of the unwary but would be exposed to ridicule in less superficial disputes. In some polemics the stakes and the standards may be very high. This need not mean that some ideal is approached but that greater care must be exercised to take into account the sorts of considerations that may be brought up by all the parties concerned. And greater care must be exercised not because some of those parties are in possession of truly higher standards of reason or have a more direct line to the truth – they might or might not – but precisely because we have more perspectives in play, because their diversity demands a sharper, more comprehensive case if their potential objections are to be met.

To give ethical reasons to someone is then to give him reasons that take his concerns and interests into account.[6] In discussion with members of another society, we can hardly make way with claims to the effect that our customs are better than theirs because ours are ours, or because our customs appeal to us. A convincing argument would have to show them that, in some respect that they may come to see as important, our customs work better for us than theirs do for them. Or if what we really want is for them to adopt ours, we must show them that our customs will work better for them, too. If action is the intended goal of reason in matters of prudence and ethics, how can reason succeed if it cannot appeal to the audience? And what appeal can there be where the aims, desires, and interests of the audience are ignored?

In an important respect this view preserves an element of universality, although not the peculiar ground of objectivity of so many views in ethics. As the Oxford philosopher J.L. Mackie put it: "If there were objective values, then they would be entities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else."[7] No. The element of universality depends rather on the realization that, as Singer says, "… one's own interests are one among many sets of interests, no more important than the similar interests of others."[8]

Where the only relevant difference between my wish and yours is that it is mine, I am generally not in a position to give you reasons why you should behave as I want you to. An intelligent being should presumably be able to detect what the relevant factors in a dispute are, and discard those that are revealed as arbitrary. Or else he would go ahead with the full knowledge that his case is also arbitrary and that he has no rational claim upon the behavior of those he was trying to persuade. Practical reasoning that will not treat impartially the interests of all parties will not succeed: It cannot motivate action.

These considerations lead Singer to conclude that all rational beings should come to this process of reasoning. If so, this reasoning would have an eternal and universal aspect. For according to Singer, "Wherever there are rational, social beings, whether on earth on in some remote galaxy, we could expect their standards of conduct to tend toward impartiality, as ours have."[9] This is not to say that all rational beings would adhere to the same specific norms of conduct, for those specific norms may have developed to meet entirely divergent constraints on behavior, as we already saw in Chapter 8. Nor is it to say that ethical behavior between all intelligent species is possible, since such behavior requires a possible commonality of interests that may not always be there (such commonality need not be of prior interests, since in new circumstances complex intelligent beings are capable of developing new interests; although there is no guarantee that new, appropriate interests will in fact be developed).

In this manner we can explain why the appeal to values is thought to provide reasons, for values themselves, as Singer points out, are inherently practical. "To value something," he says, "is to regard oneself as having a reason for promoting it. How can there be something in the universe, existing entirely independently of us and our aims, desires, and interests, which provides us with reasons for acting in certain ways?"[10] When I point out the connections between space science and survival, I consciously expect that my case will be successful because it does take into account what I believe are the aims, desires, and interests of my intended audience. I assume that most normal human beings care deeply about the consequences that I have outlined. Indeed, since what I am doing is trying to meet the objections of the critics, I ought to be on firm ground, for they very explicitly announce their concern for the welfare of all humankind (at least in the case of the social critics).

Should humans be interested in their own interests? The question does not even deserve to be called rhetorical. What often happens, though, is that reasons that presumably take our interests into account may be challenged on the grounds that they really do not -- that if we consider other relevant factors, or a long view of things, then we realize that what appeared to be in our interest really is not. But how can it be that survival is not really in our best interest?

There are cases where survival clearly does not override other reasons (or motives) for action, and where we may agree that it should not. Cases, for example, in which someone risks his life to save his child's, or a stranger's for that matter. Or cases in which principle takes precedence. But all these are cases worthy of admiration precisely because we recognize that the person's survival was in his best interest, but that he disregarded it for the benefit of a higher purpose.

Moreover, I would venture to guess that the reason we are willing to let personal survival be overridden is that this higher purpose is somehow involved with making life better for those that remain, or even to make sure that others do remain. As this purpose expands in scope, it will ultimately cover the well-being of all mankind. And here we should not speak merely of mankind as we may find it in a slice of history, but mankind as it extends through history into the future.

Religion sometimes demands the sacrifice of lives for rather obscure goals, or for goals that only the faithful find less than revolting. And political passion is often guilty of similar motivations. But it is difficult to see how a religion or a political ideology that demanded, or permitted, the destruction of the entire human species, that would deny the future a chance, could justify itself to the most general of audiences. Even so I am not inclined to say that no conceivable set of circumstances could provide a reason more pertinent than the survival of mankind. Still, such a strict requirement is not necessary. I presume to have given good, convincing reasons. Unless someone offers stronger alternatives, I would like to think that I have done enough in this respect.

The previous point is that the line of argument that culminates with a connection to our survival and the betterment of our material condition need not go to a deeper level of justification. This point was clearly aimed at a philosophical critic who might question the ground of justification I provide for the exploration of space. Nevertheless I have not yet earned the right to bring the discussion to an end. First of all other critics may wonder about the appeal to the interests of humanity, not because appealing to interests is not enough but because they may think that "humanity" is too elusive a subject to have interests. And second, some of the ideological critics may resist the conclusion that space science is necessary for the long-term survival of the human species.

The first objection is less powerful than one may imagine. Of course, our species is not some kind of super-organism of which individual human beings are the cells. There is surely no talking to any such "humanity". Humanity in a clear sense does not think what is best for it, nor does it recognize its interests, simply because there is no conscious subject there to think or recognize. Individual human beings do the thinking and recognizing. That is fair enough. Moreover, the interests of human beings are individual interests, what do they have to do with the interests of humans who may live several million years hence? How compelling can that appeal to the future be? How compelling should it be?

I would like to offer two responses, one rhetorical and the other philosophical. The rhetorical response is this. If my aim is to meet the objections against space exploration by the social and ideological critics, this particular point can do little against my case. For those objections cannot even get off the ground unless we assume first that it is not only possible but also our duty to do what is best for humanity. That is, we recognize that we should act not only so as to ensure our own well being but that of others. The audience, in a figurative but still important respect, are the people of the Earth. If that were not so, what would be the point of arguing that combating poverty is more important than observing the X-ray emissions from the vicinity of possible black holes? Or of suggesting that science is not wise because in the long run it will bring us to grief? The "us" here are surely not those of us who may hear the warning when first issued, but those in posterity whose world we may swindle by our recklessness of today.

And now we can move from the purely rhetorical to more general or philosophical remarks. The reason the objections of the social and ideological critics do have a leg to stand on, although they turn out to be ultimately mistaken, is that as a matter of fact we do decide for posterity to a great extent. We may plant the trees from which “our” descendents will receive nourishment and shade, or we may destroy what could have given them a fighting chance against drought and famine. It is for them to make their own decisions, but at least the initial situation in which they will find themselves is more of our making than of theirs. Nor should we think that a society is merely an aggregate of individuals, and the species an aggregate of societies. Even if there is no super-organism, the whole does amount to more than the sum of its parts. Society is not a mere statistical distribution of individual properties. An individual that belongs to a society has characteristics that he could not have by himself. An advanced scientific and literary society, for example, builds libraries, universities, and laboratories, which enable an individual to educate himself for a style of life that would not exist without those institutions. The choices and opportunities open to him are not those that we could have without the benefit of the past efforts of generations that brought about the world into which he was born. No one could choose to be a modern farmer without the technology this century has provided, simply because the things a modern farmer does would not be possible otherwise. Nor could one choose to be a goalie in a soccer team if the game did not exist. In a primitive society it is very difficult to become a scientist, or a movie actor, or for that matter an effective critic of technology, since he will have little acquaintance with it. And in some societies dominated by religion, the female half of the population do not have the right to drive a car, receive an education, or even show their faces.

What we are, what we may become obviously depends on our own efforts and talents. But it also depends on the range of choices, on the freedoms, and on the starting points that our society and culture make available to us. We do not become ourselves in a vacuum. But we also change the society by our choices, and thus we change the face of posterity, and sometimes its very substance. Some may wish to deny that our dialectical relationship with society imposes on us obligations of gratitude. But with a bit of attention, even they should realize that the present generation does decide for mankind, whether unwittingly or not. And they should realize also that the choices we face today are particularly important, more so perhaps than the choices most other generations of humans had to make. Nor is my case aimed strictly to the present generation. Now that space exploration has become a feasible alternative, these controversies have only been born.

Survival of the species is not a value just because it is in accordance with evolution. In the first place survival is not the goal of evolution. Evolution has no goals. And besides that, most species that ever lived are now extinct. Survival is a value to us because without it all the other interests of the species may become moot. And even though the interests of many individuals do not depend on the survival of the species, their collective actions often affect the species as a whole-- and when they recognize this, they care how it all comes out in the wash.

According to some important contemporary views influenced by biology, it is in the nature of human beings to care about the fate of their descendants. This tendency can be explained by the comparative study of life forms and their drive to insure that their genes remain in the world even after they themselves are gone, and especially by the mechanism of kin selection and its concomitant kin altruism. But even if some are suspicious of such sociobiological studies and would rather speak in terms of culture, it would be difficult to deny that survival is in the interest of the species, or that our actions today may affect that interest tomorrow. Knowing that, it is a pretense to argue, as some fanciful philosophers do, that since future generations are not yet born, they do not have rights (for they are not “real”), and therefore we cannot be said to have obligations towards them.[11] Were they correct, I could not be accused of mass murder if I were to leave a large bomb hidden under the floor of the newborn wing of a hospital, timed to go off in six months, since none of my future victims would have been born by the time I hid the bomb.[12] Nor can I leave the bomb there even if I did not plant it myself. Thus we do have obligations to ensure that CFCs no longer destroy the ozone layer so that our grandchildren will not suffer in large numbers from skin cancer. And we also have a positive obligation to put in place space systems to warn us of asteroid impacts and to deflect them, lest our descendants go the way of the dinosaurs.

This is not to say that we are always looking out for the interests of the species, few of us are. But then we are practically never looking out for the interests of a stranger, although if we see him collapse on the street many of us would feel a strong impulse to come to his assistance. Similarly, the appropriate time to recognize the interests of the species is when we become aware that they are threatened. And in any event, insofar as we accept the responsibility of deciding for the species, the argument that ought to work is that which takes the interests of the species into account.

[2] See Berry’s contributions to Space Colonies, ed. by Stewart Brand (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 36-37 and 82-85.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 1, Ch. 7, 2nd Edition, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000).

[4] Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), p. 105.

[5] Many utilitarians, however, assign to pain and pleasure absolute values, positive or negative respectively.

[6] In this I follow Singer in his The Expanding Circle, op. cit.

[7] Quoted in Singer, ibid., p. 107.

[8] Ibid., p. 106.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 107.

[11] Robert M. Adams, "Existence, Self-Interest, and the Problem of Evil," Nous I3 (1979): 57. Derek Parfit, "On Doing the Best for Our Children," in Ethics and Population, ed. Michael Bayles (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, I976), pp. 100-102. Thomas Schwartz, "Obligations to Posterity," in Obligations to Future Generations, ed. Richard Sikora and Brian Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, I978). For a discussion see Robert Elliot, “The Rights of Future People,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 6, no. 2 (1989): 159–69.

[12] Presuming that I time it so precisely that no nurses or visitors will be killed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Chapter 9D


By now some readers may feel that this apology of space technology is turning into the confessions of Pollyanna. If space has done much to drive technology, in some way it must have also influenced the development of the armaments that have held the world hostage to nuclear terror. However diffuse, that influence must have been there. But the most important point is this. If it had not been for technology we would not have been in a position to destroy life on Earth. Once you achieve a certain degree of technological proficiency, total destruction becomes a real possibility. Since space will increase our technological proficiency even more, the military will have even more means of threatening the welfare of human beings. And one day something may go wrong . . . . Moreover, this relationship between the military and technology is inevitable because the military has the function of amassing the best arsenals that it can get its hands on. Thus the military will always try to put technology to its own uses. Some may also fear that further advances in technology may place nuclear weapons within the reach of fanatics and terrorists. The fire that we received from the gods has been fanned by our aggression and our ambition. It may yet reduce us to ashes.

Nevertheless, this line of argument cannot be accepted on a priori grounds alone. And as we have seen, the perceptions that give it plausibility do not square clearly with an examination of the historical developments. In any event, we should be weary of endowing this presumed inevitability of the connection between science and destruction, via technology, with the full status of a law of history. In the first place, the existence of laws of history is at best a debatable philosophical thesis. In the second place, this particular "law" seems to be underwritten by some rather unclear beliefs about aggression and human nature. Whether humans are aggressive by nature still is an open question. Even if Rousseau said that men are perverse and learning only makes them worse, our understanding of human aggression is not yet at the stage where we can use it to declare laws of history.

But let me set aside these rather abstract considerations. Consider instead that not all possible technologies become reality. No one may think of some of them, for example. And even most technologies that people contemplate never are attempted. Of course the military has a lot of money and influence. Nonetheless, that is not enough reason to conclude that our anxious predicament was inevitable. Many unfortunate coincidences were required.

Although the atomic bomb was theoretically possible, it demanded an extraordinary commitment of scientific talent and military funds. If it had not been for the threat that Hitler might be developing such a bomb, it is difficult to see why the American scientists would have been so willing to work on the project or why the Army would have thought seriously of embarking on such a quest. And the step from atomic to hydrogen bomb also required a major effort that could be justified only by the paranoia of the Cold War. But the world could have been very different. Hitler could have been killed early. Or he might have won. The Cold War could have degenerated into full confrontation, and one of the superpowers might have established hegemony over the entire world -- a new grand Roman Empire. None of the technological feats in question came easy. A slightly different timing of events would have changed the political and economic environment that permitted them to be born and prosper. The use of liquid-fuel rockets as weapons is a case in point. If Oberth had listened to the advice of his teachers, his book would not have changed von Braun's life -- it would not have turned him into the VFR's able envoy to the German army. Space rockets might have thus never become ICBMs.

Is it not reasonable to suppose that eventually those weapons would have been built anyway? In some historical scenarios, yes. In others, not. A person does not always buy a rifle whether he needs it or not, just for the hell of it. It depends on what else seems important at the time. But could space technology have been developed in a different world? And if it needed the support of the military, should we not conclude that the two must go hand in hand? Not so. Space exploration could have taken a different route, with success. For one thing because there may be good reasons to engage in it -- as we have seen in previous chapters. And for another, because space enthusiasts may have come up with great propaganda all the same. National prestige alone, even in the absence of a cold war, can be enough of a motivation in some circumstances. As DeGaulle said in ushering France into the space age, "We must invest constantly, push relentlessly our technology and scientific research to avoid sinking into a bitter mediocrity and being colonized by the invention and capacity of other nations."

Still it is obvious that without science and technology we would not have the capacity to destroy our planet. That I must grant. In response, however, I would like to tell a story with a relevant moral. Imagine that a group of humans is marooned in a remote island. One among them, an extremely clever scientist, figures out that a massive earthquake is going to destroy the island in one year. Scientific knowledge would prompt these people to undertake a dangerous journey that they might not survive, leading them to die sooner than if they had stayed in the island (to be successful, the trip must begin almost immediately). On the other hand ignorance would be bliss. But only for a year. What I want to argue is that even though science may increase our chances of disaster in the near future, it may also save us from perhaps greater disasters and allow us to postpone extinction. And in this task space exploration has a significant role to play. The goal of space exploration, Oberth wrote, is "To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabited, and all life purposeful."

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Star Wars Defense

Chapter 9C

The Star Wars Defense

Another contribution of space to our actual situation is often mentioned. Satellites are integral part in military communications and reconnaissance. But on the whole this has been more of a benefit than not. It was precisely the existence of such satellites that made it possible for the Kennedy administration in the U.S. to sign a test ban treaty with the Soviets. The days of such testing seem a remote memory today, but we must not forget that extremely powerful devices were routinely exploded in the atmosphere, with potentially disastrous effects. And even though a ban was in the interest of both parties, it was difficult to get around the suspicion that the other side would cheat. Together with seismographic methods and other techniques, reconnaissance satellites gave the needed assurances. Little can be done to hide an explosion of several megatons from a good camera overhead.

Satellites also guide “smart bombs” and give the military information needed to invade other lands. But then again, cooperation with the military need not be evil. It all depends on the enemy and the war. Besides, the main motivation for the development of “smart bombs” is to maximize the destruction of military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. This is hardly the basis for an indictment. Now, a new direct application of space technology to war may be the conversion of an airplane designed to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere into a spy plane (for it could fly high enough to avoid standard ground-to-air missiles). As we have seen, though, the spying made possible by space technology has been on the whole beneficial.

Let me leave behind for the moment this examination of past and present and concentrate for a while on the future. There are two main ways in which space can be seen as worsening our situation. One is that weapons more formidable may still result from space technology. The other is that by developing that technology we make the world more unstable. What those formidable weapons might be is largely unknown. A suggestion one hears from time to time is that big rocks could be aimed at the Earth from the Moon. They would be accelerated to escape velocity by electromagnetic forces, and their course toward their Earth target would be corrected by pretty standard guidance techniques. The energy released by the impact of a large rock could cause extraordinary damage. To mount such an attack, a country would require a rather substantial base on the Moon. This base could be underground, and presumably easy to defend. I think that Gerard O'Neill's efforts to design a mass driver to put lunar materials in orbit -- basically the technology for the Moon slingshot -- shows that the military applications are not so readily at hand. The rocks would have to be very big to be effective as weapons and follow a very precise trajectory to fall on the right target. Nonetheless, I suppose that sooner or later such a weapon may be feasible. But I am not sure how the situation would be radically altered. What kept ICBM's in their silos had nothing to do with how easy the silos were to defend. It had all to do with the fear of retaliation upon the society that launched them. Similar remarks should apply to the proposal to build a gigantic solar collector in the Moon to energize a very powerful beam, a death ray, that would vaporize any nation incautious enough to become our enemy.

Another possible nightmare connected with space exploration may come at the time when we make serious attempts to travel to the stars. A hydrogen bomb releases only a small fraction of the energy "frozen" in matter. To achieve the relativistic speeds necessary in star travel we must find practical ways of releasing far larger fractions of energy. The problem is that, with such a technology, it might be possible to make bombs monstrous enough to blow our planet to bits. In that case, however, retaliation would be rendered at once impossible and redundant.

Some evidence suggests that a full-scale attack by one superpower upon the other might be enough already to destroy the human race even if there is no response. According to Carl Sagan and other researchers, a global nuclear war would radically affect the atmosphere, both by the amount of radioactive dust that would circle the planet and by the making it poisonous to terrestrial life. Although this possibility requires a rather pessimistic reading of "Nuclear Winter" scenarios, it should give further pause to nuclear adversaries. As our destructive power increases, to kill may well be tantamount to suicide. This may well show that to build more weapons is sheer folly. We should realize, however, that there is a clear sense in which more offensive power cannot make matters worse. When you have a bazooka pointed at someone's head, bringing a far bigger bazooka does not really alter the situation all that much.

The other way in which space may presumably worsen the situation is by making it more unstable. One possibility much discussed in the recent past was the defense system proposed by President Reagan of the U.S. This system, popularly known as "the star wars defense," would have employed gigantic lasers or particle-beam weapons to knock out ICBMs in flight. Normally the atmosphere would dissipate the impact of such weapons, but since ICBMs must fly in thin regions, they might be easy prey. There were several formidable problems with such a scheme. The first was that the technology required went far beyond the state of the art. The second was that several easy countermeasures were open to the other side. And the third, and most decisive, was that according to the most optimistic reliable estimates such a defense would probably be no more than 75% effective. Since at the earliest time when the system could have been installed, each side could have owned at least 10,000 warheads, the successful 25% would be more than enough to put an end to things human. Even 99% effectiveness would allow for incredible devastation. Although such high level of effectiveness was never in the cards, imagine that a vigorous program of research could have improved the power of lasers and the means of detection of ICBMs to the point that a 100% effective defense had been possible in a few decades. Since the proposal by the American president included making the technology available to the other side, ICBMs would have become obsolete. In this way space would have done away with its main contribution to the anxiety of the Cold War.

In reality, President Reagan's scheme was as pointless as it was expensive: A star wars defense cannot end the threat of annihilation. For the laser beams and the particles shot from low orbit could not penetrate the atmosphere to knock out also bombers and cruise missiles, or even missiles fired from submarines close to the target. That is, even with all the ICBMs neutralized, the Soviet Union and the United States had ample nuclear alternatives to destroy each other and human civilization. In the case of a real war, our celebration of the complete success of Star Wars against ICBM's would have lasted only the few hours that it would take for cruise a missile to barely clear the last hill on its journey to us . .

Whereas some hope that space technology can help us slay the dragon whose fire other technology ignited, others worry about the increasing reliance on satellites for military operations, especially now that it is possible to attack and destroy those satellites. This is seen as one more instance in which space technology brings us to the edge of disaster. But we should notice that a country whose military communication satellites were destroyed would feel inclined to attack mainly because it would reasonably interpret the destruction of its satellites as the prologue to total war. A country could get away with the destruction of another's satellites only if the other could not find out about it. Since this is not so, it seems unreasonable to suppose that space technology has made matters worse.

It is true that in space we can find more reasons for fighting than we already have. If we discover a great treasure in the Moon we may resent any attempts to take it away from us. And our satellites have become such valuable commodities that we would not like to be deprived of them. But we cannot blame space technology in this regard any more than a tribe can blame their canoes for enabling them to discover good hunting grounds downstream, grounds that may become a source of quarrel with another tribe.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

V-2 Rockets and Bombs

Chapter 9B

V-2 Rockets and Bombs

Even though rockets had been used for military purposes since the 1200s, they had never been particularly effective as weapons. But in the 1930s the needs of the German military began to converge with those of the VFR. The main problem for the rocket enthusiasts was the lack of financial support for their activities. They resorted to all sorts of stratagems to raise money. One member by the name of Valier sold Opel on the idea of trying rockets to propel automobiles. This scheme brought in some funding until Valier was killed testing one of his contraptions. The VFR leader, Rudolf Nebel, talked the city of Magdeburg into supporting rocket research that would lead to an experiment sure to make the city famous. At the time there were in Germany many crank theories supporting the view that the Earth was a hollow sphere and we lived in the inside, with our heads, not our feet, pointing to the center. A rocket with a human observer in it could go up a few miles and decide once and for all what the real shape of the Earth was. Nothing but extended survival for the VFR came of the project.

Into this opportunistic search for funds walked the German army. The treaty of Versailles, after WWI, forbid the German development of long-range, heavy artillery. But there was no mention of rockets anywhere in the treaty. A young member of the VFR, Wernher von Braun was able to interest the army generals in his projects, a task facilitated by the fact that he was an aristocrat and the son of the minister of agriculture. Initially the army support was small, but as the tensions in Europe grew and the task of rearmament went into full swing, young von Braun very adeptly played the German armed services against each other (both the army and the air force saw the rocket as their domain). All the while, the story has been told, von Braun and his cohorts kept on designing the future space ship. According to him, "An unbiased visitor to the planning group at Peenemunde would have heard little, if anything, discussed which related to other matters than reaching out into space . . . ." But when it came to economic support, all the talk was of the terrifying weapon they were developing for the fatherland. Their final product, the V-2 rocket, was indeed terrifying. Many a British nightmare began with the horrible whistle of the rocket as it cut through the London night on its mission of death and destruction.

Even if the VFR used the bombing of London to finance space flight ultimately, a critic may still deny them absolution. Moreover, he may argue that this episode is a clear instance of how the quest for space made for more misery than the world would otherwise have endured. And he may also point out how easy it is for scientists to sell their souls to the devil. Oberth thought that space would bring about a more harmonious future. So did the pioneers of aviation. Once in the air, human beings would realize the unimportance of the geographical and political barriers between them. In a similar vein, some believe now that as humans look back at the globe of the Earth from space, they will be struck by the revelation that we are all children of the Mother Earth and therefore brothers. There lie the beginnings of real peace. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam during the war against the USA sent a message of congratulations to its enemy on the occasion of the first lunar landing by the Americans. Perhaps that revelation of brotherhood will become widespread. But only folly would lead us to expect that it can guarantee peace. Brothers are sometimes the worst of enemies. As for the aviators, not long after being awed by the prospects of peace, they were killing each other and reducing cities to rubble. And in spite of the spectacular adventure of the Apollo flights to the Moon, the war in Vietnam continued for several more years.

Nevertheless, let us not leave the V-2 incident unexamined, for that incident gives so much plausibility to the notion that space technology is bound to bring us to grief. We assume that anything that furthered Hitler's cause was evil, therefore the V-2 was evil. But did the V-2 further Hitler's cause? To believe Dornberger, the German general in charge of the V-2 project, it did. He recalls that Hitler apologized to him for not having grasped the significance of the weapon years earlier--the first time in his life that Hitler had apologized. But the man who kept the books, Albert Speer, the minister of munitions, thought that the V-2 had been a terrible waste of manpower and resources. As he put it: "49,000 tons of explosive were dropped on Berlin alone, by which 20.9% of the dwellings were seriously damaged or totally destroyed. In order to direct the same quantity against London, we would have had to employ 66,000 great rockets." Consider for a moment that Germany fired against England a grand total of 1340 V-2s!

By contrast, one American B-17, a long-range bomber, cost six times as much as one V-2 but carried three times as many explosives and could be used many times over. It has been suggested that Germany would have been better off building airplanes instead. This is doubtful. Radar gave the allies a great advantage in defending against the German air force, and thus more airplanes may not have made the difference. Fighters could, of course, be used to defend Germany against the attacking bombers; but it is not clear that the Germans had the gasoline for those extra airplanes while, as Dornberger claimed, the V-2s used alcohol extracted from potatoes. Dornberger, however, fails to take into account the diversion of coal from the production of gasoline (the Germans made synthetic gasoline) to factories producing not only the alcohol but also the more esoteric fuels used by the rockets. Nor does he take into account that cars and trucks could and did run on alcohol. Indeed at Peenemunde, the base for the V-2, the carburetors of trucks had been modified so they could run on rocket fuel.

Whatever the final disposition of the choice between V-2s and airplanes, there is a more straightforward comparison to determine the effectiveness of the V-2. The natural competitor of von Braun's rocket was the V-1, or buzz bomb, a pilotless plane forerunner of the cruise missile, and not a rocket designed with space in mind. According to calculations made by David Irving and later confirmed by Speer, the V-1 killed twice as many Britons for half the production cost of the V-2. Toward the end of the war the British were able to shoot down most V-1s, but the Germans could have instituted easy modifications that would have preserved the success of the V-1. They did not do so because von Braun had convinced them that his big liquid-fuel rocket was the way to go. As Bainbridge concludes, "By any criteria, the V-2 was not a cost-effective weapon. It could not match the performance of much simpler weapons systems, yet drained money, materials, and talent from its sponsors."

Sometimes it is suggested that the V-2 could have carried an atomic warhead. But the Germans did not have one. And if they had, the V-2 could not have delivered it (the payload of a V-2 was less than a ton; an early atomic bomb weighed four tons). Suggestions that the Germans could have combined several V-2s for that purpose, or that they could have built a rocket capable of hitting targets in the U.S. do not stand up to close scrutiny. The same can be said for the notion that a von Braun design had provided an effective antiaircraft missile. But I will let the interested reader consult Bainbridge's analysis (pp.92-122). For our present purposes the important result, at least in this case, is that space technology does not seem to have made matters worse for mankind. If anything the case goes in the opposite direction. This, of course, may not change our moral evaluation of von Braun and his group. Bad intentions or plain callousness are in themselves worthy of blame.

After the war, the V-2 was used for scientific research at high altitude, a task for which it was very well suited. Its military used was limited, as was that of its direct descendants, the Russian T-1 and the American Redstone. And the reason was simply that a rocket was then too expensive and complicated a means of delivering conventional explosives. Nevertheless, opportunity would again come von Braun's way, now with his group forming part of the American rocket program, and for Korolyov, von Braun's Russian counterpart. At first it was the Army's interest in a rocket that might carry atomic warheads; and then in the 1950s, with the development of compact hydrogen bombs, the space rocket seemed to have become at last an effective instrument of war. Thanks to the descendants of the V-2 that terrorized London, man could now make short work of ending all life on Earth.

It is clear that the cold war led both Americans and Russians to spare no effort in developing technology for war. And there is no question that the quest for space played a part in putting the human race under the threat of nuclear annihilation. But as in the case of the V-2, the matter is not all that simple. First of all, that threat would have been there independent of rockets. Bombers would have been sufficient all along. Second, for all the anxiety that threat caused, some argue that the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) actually prevented a third world war. And third, the contribution of space technology is ambiguous.

The first point is fairly obvious. The main role of rockets was to make the time of flight so short -- from a few minutes to half an hour depending on their location -- that in case of a confrontation it would have been very difficult to correct any mistakes. To some critics this is a terrible indictment of space technology. And so is the mere fact that rockets have given us one more way of making the destruction of life possible. But this is all a matter of perspective. Let us consider the two indictments separately. It is true that shortening the time from the decision to attack to the actual explosion did not allow for much flexibility. Nevertheless, the problem of inflexibility still existed with bombers and cruise missiles that could not be called back -- as it was the case with the American weapons -- so without rockets the world would get a reprieve of a couple of hours. Once the decision to attack was made, the result would be the same anyway. In any event, from the point of view of the supporters of MAD, the variety and efficiency that rockets offered simply made us work so much harder to make sure that we did not launch an attack. And that was on the whole for the best.

People who hold this view need only point out that the Soviet Union and the United States had such mutually repulsive political systems that a global war would have been inevitable without MAD. And even though the two superpowers constantly engaged in surrogate wars, and even though many other countries insisted in adding their own ghastly contributions, during the Cold War, the world endured nothing comparable to the devastation of WWII. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that a conventional war between the two superpowers, probably in the 1950s, would have dwarfed the confrontation with Hitler. Thanks to nuclear weapons, there was no world war because to start one was to commit suicide. The anxiety produced by MAD was difficult to bear. But given the alternative -- and I mean a conventional, not a nuclear, WWIII -- there were those who would rather be anxious.

The notion is then that, with stakes so high, the world has had to be very careful. But what makes some critics despair is that an accident or a misunderstanding could have brought about the end of the world. As the means of setting the bomb off multiplied, the probability that it would increased. Besides, the shorter the fuse, the harder it is to evaluate whether reports that it has been lit are genuine. A country may retaliate, thinking itself under attack, in a case in which more time could have turned up a computer malfunction or a strange echo on a radar screen rather than an incoming ballistic missile. But on the other hand, the more its means of retaliation, the less a country will fear that it will not be able to get even. In such a case, a country may be more willing to take the chance that its opponent has not really launched a first strike--and more willing also to recognize an accident for what it is. The fewer its means of retaliation, the more paranoid a country may be, and thus the more likely to attack.

In this matter, as in most political matters, people hold strong opinions without hesitation. But it is seldom easy to see why the argument can cut only one way. Nevertheless, let us grant -- for the sake of discussion, if nothing else -- that MAD was a terrible thing, and that the world would have been better without it. Is the link between space technology and the nuclear threat therefore as firm as many believe?

That matter is not so clear either. During a short time in the 1950's, space rockets became suitable vehicles for the newly invented hydrogen bombs. But once the Russian and American space programs began in earnest, the size and power of the new rockets were generally far in excess of what the military needed. Even at the time when the first ICBMs were being built, the goal could have been accomplished without liquid fuel rockets, that is, without space rockets. Solid fuel rockets, it turns out, can serve the military purpose with greater reliability and safety. In fact, in several instances the space rockets were out of the question. The Navy, for example, had no use for a liquid fuel rocket that could be fired only in near perfect weather. The Navy feared that any rocking of the ship could make the rocket explode prematurely -- on deck.

Of course, a solid fuel rocket does not offer as much control. But then the task did not involve putting anything in orbit, and, in any event, given the devastating power of a hydrogen bomb, extraordinary precision was not at a premium. Much later when increased precision was required, new guidance systems had become available for the solid fuel rockets. Thus the military could have had its ICBMs without space; and to concur with Bainbridge, perfect hindsight makes us see that the military should have gone strictly with solid fuel rockets. The direction the military actually took favored space flight and not the means of destruction. And it took that direction because space enthusiasts like von Braun could always make great propaganda out of the technological success of the V-2 and the myth that surrounded it. Without that myth, military rockets would have been very different. As Bainbridge puts it: “The military advantages of solid fuels include cost, storability, reliability, and simplicity. These advantages must be foregone by space vehicles to achieve greater power and control. By its striking superiority over contemporary solid-fuel rockets, the V-2 pointed the direct way toward space but led military technology on a detour."

Saturday, October 8, 2011




One of Rousseau's complaints against the arts and the sciences was that they weaken the military might of a society. "All examples teach us," he said, "that in military of the sciences is much more apt to soften and enervate courage than to strengthen and animate it." Perhaps it was still possible in the 18th Century, when he wrote, to believe that the sciences were luxuries of no practical military consequences -- although even then the new science had brought great advances in ballistics and other military fields. Today those who share Rousseau's suspicion of science do so for different reasons. He worried that science made us if anything less formidable. They worry that it makes us far too formidable.

The proponents of space exploration generally have a benign view of what the enterprise has to offer, although it is not uncommon to see space activities funded precisely because some military advantage is likely to result from them. The serious objection is not, however, that there is a connection between space technology and the military, for after all there have been times when helping the military was the right thing to do (fighting against Hitler, for example). The objection is rather that space technology puts into the hands of man tools that he cannot fail to mishandle. There is an evil side to man, and so whatever discoveries science makes will eventually visit pain and misery upon the human race. Space science and its accompanying technology are no exception. If anything they confirm the suspicions against science in general. Is it not true that rockets have been used to kill and terrorize in the past? Is it not true that for decades they were the very means by which the entire planet could have been brought to nuclear annihilation at a moment's notice? Are they not still a great threat today?

The point is not merely that there is a connection between space and grief. The point is rather that the connection is somehow unavoidable, that you cannot have one without the other. Thus, the more space technology progresses, the more acute the grief. This far more sweeping claim requires that we look into the history of space exploration and its likely future for clues of such inherent connections with destruction and evil. Indeed we must keep in mind that this claim often gains plausibility in the first place because of appeals to history -- mainly to the role of the German V-2 rockets in WWII and of the intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War.

The need to examine this objection in a historical context cannot be stressed too much. Some may argue that the relevant issue is whether space technology will make war inevitable in the future, whatever its role might have been in the past. But this line of argument operates in a rhetorical vacuum. An estimate of the contribution of space technology to war should presumably be supported by reasons, by an account of the causal and probable connections involved. And how are those reasons going to be assessed? On their merits, one might hope. But what are their merits? What makes causal and probable connections plausible in the first place? I submit that these difficult matters are most often influenced by the way we have learned to judge. And what has determined that learning if not our perception of how similar matters have been resolved? We appeal, that is, to our experience, and in the last analysis, to history. At the very least a brief look at history is necessary, then, to unearth assumptions which otherwise may be innocently smuggled into appraisals of the future.

The wish to explore beyond the confines of our own world is very old. By 180 AD it received full treatment in Lukian's Vera Historia (True History), in which travelers go to the Moon when a giant whirlwind picks up their ship from the ocean. In 1634 the famous Johannes Kepler wrote Sleep, a novel about a trip to the Moon. With the advent of the industrial revolution, several would-be inventors tried their imagination at mechanical contraptions that could turn such trips into more than dreams, although their colorful ideas had little to do with the actual development of rocketry many decades later. In Russia there was Kibal'chich, who spent his time designing explosive devices and rocket aircraft, while ignoring his trial for blowing the Czar to bits in 1881. In Germany there was Ganswindt, who worked on a hopeless steam jet to propel his spacecraft. And everywhere there were fiction writers taking their readers on trips that engineering could not yet make available.

The theme of space travel was in the air, and around the turn of the century the real pioneering work was finally carried out. By then science and technology had caught up with the old dreams to the point that not one but three independent investigators provided the foundation of space rocketry. The Russian Tsiolkovsky was the earliest, then came Goddard in the U.S., and finally the most influential of them all, Oberth in Germany. The first thing these three men had to do was show that space flight was indeed possible. Their solution to this problem, as we will see, has some bearing on the issue of whether inherent connections exist between space technology and devastating war. And the problem was that, to many “experts” at the time, space flight seemed not merely far fetched but physically impossible. Some disheartening calculations, for example, showed that however efficient the production of thrust, no rocket could raise its own mass into orbit. But as the pioneers showed, even the most sophisticated impossibility proofs could be gotten around by the very simple but ingenious idea of using multi-stage rockets. The first stage gives the whole rocket an initial boost and then separates. At that point a second stage takes over the task of pushing a lighter vehicle with a now shorter distance to climb. One or two more pushes like that and the rocket achieves orbital velocity.

A second barrier was overcome by the switch from solid to liquid fuels. Standard rockets generally used solid fuels, mostly gun powder, which lacked both the power and the control required for space flight. Tsiolkovsky and the other pioneers soon realized, however, that several mixtures of liquid propellants, particularly hydrogen burned with oxygen, could give rockets the desired performance. This is of particular importance to our question, as we shall see. Now, a quick comparison of liquid and solid fuels shows how right Tsiolkovsky was -- a most remarkable feat for a self-taught man who never gained entrance to the scientific or engineering circles of his day. Liquid propellants liberate more energy per pound than their solid competitors. (The following figures were given by John Shasta of the American Rocket Society in 1936, and appear in William S. Bainbridge's book The Spaceflight Revolution, from which most of the following account is taken). The best powder achieved 1870 BTU's; a mixture of methyl alcohol with oxygen, 3030; while hydrogen and oxygen combined gave 5760. Even in contemporary times the differences are pronounced: The solid fuel in the typical military rocket of the 1970's produced in principle an exhaust velocity of 2250 meters per second (m/s), a figure inferior to the 2750 m/s that Goddard had actually achieved with his small rockets decades earlier, and much below the 4200 m/s obtained by burning hydrogen with oxygen. At least until recently, the best that could be hoped for in future solid fuels did not measure up to the performance of liquid fuels in this respect.

In the second important respect, control, the differences are just as pronounced. The difficulty with a solid propellant is that it tends to burn until it is exhausted. You cannot just shut it off and start it again. In a liquid system, on the other hand, you may always control the amounts of fluids intervening in a reaction -- you may increase it, decrease it, or turn it off altogether. And you can open the valves again and thereby restart the combustion that gives you the thrust. This fine control permits the appropriate accelerations at the appropriate times to maneuver the rocket into the desired orbit. And although the techniques to achieve this control were not easily acquired by rocket developers in the decades that followed, there was now a clear direction of research, as well as good reasons to think that the problems could be solved.

The three pioneers also provided basic formulas for engine performance and specified likely vehicle trajectories. Now the goals were clarified, and so were the means for attaining them. Nevertheless, the move toward space did not quicken its pace for a long time. The few who were technically competent and who took the trouble to read carefully the works of the rocket pioneers may have realized the potential involved. But most technically qualified people regarded the topic with suspicion and did not bother themselves with an investigation of it. There is nothing conspiratorial or shortsighted in that attitude. Any scientist may well be bombarded with a myriad of ideas that he himself has not examined in detail. Which ones should he explore? Not all of them. He cannot. And surely not those that strike him as implausible or without foundation. Time is too short for that. Science changes because not all scientists are cut of the same cloth, and thus what seems preposterous to the majority may instead strike a resonant chord in a few others. Most beginnings are therefore small, and the development of space technology was no exception.

The dreams of the pioneers were left for others to realize. Tsiolkovsky remained undiscovered and ignored. Goddard was very secretive about his own work. As Bainbridge points out, "He did not publish an account of his first 1923 engine firing until 1936, when the V-2 was already taking shape on German drawing boards. Complete reports of his experiments in the 1930s were not published until 1961, the year that Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth." This situation was apparently more the result of his peculiar temperament than anything else. According to Bainbridge, "Goddard tended to ignore the work of other men in the field, was remiss in his correspondence with colleagues, refused to share his results, and would not participate in joint projects. He seemed to want to achieve successes...then burst upon the world in triumph." But one man alone could not achieve what took the efforts of many thousands. Such were the first quirky steps in the strange journey that took us to the Moon.

As interesting as the lives and motivations of these men were, an account that would do them justice is beyond the scope of this book. For our purposes, it is enough to say that those motivations had more to do with the liberation of the human spirit, with its excellence, than with the destruction of other human beings. In Oberth's words: "...probably Mankind will even build spaceships sometime, make other planets habitable, or even establish habitable stations in space, and having become morally mature in the meantime, will bear life and harmony out into the cosmos."

Oberth presented his masterwork The Rocket into Interplanetary Space as his doctoral dissertation in 1922 (Goddard's crucial theoretical work preceded his by ten years, and Tsiolkovsky's by twenty). He was turned down with the advice to look for a more suitable topic. He refused, and then proclaimed that he could become a greater scientist than his examiners, "even without the title of doctor." His arrogance was not entirely misplaced. Within a year he had published his book, of which Arthur C. Clarke has said that it "may one day be classed among the few that have changed the history of mankind." In any event, it became not only a source of inspiration but also the textbook for the German rocket experimenters. One such group, founded in 1927, the VFR--Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) -- was to prove of crucial importance.