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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."

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