TCS Daily

Freedom and Survival

By James Pinkerton - February 4, 2003 12:00 AM

In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, the arguments of the pro-space constituency are strong, but not strong enough. If space advocates can't bring themselves to make the most powerful arguments of all-that space is vital to human freedom, even to human survival-then their cause will falter as the soaring spirit of heroism and martyrdom fades, and as the counter-arguments of the cost-benefiting, bean-counting critics gain footing.

To be sure, the weekend was a time for both paying tribute to lost astronauts and offering exhortation for future astronautics. Space, said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, is "important to us as Americans and as adventurers." Declared Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, to Fox News, "We must push back the frontiers of knowledge." And, most poignantly, first-American-to-orbit-the-earth John Glenn told CNN, "I'd go back tomorrow if I could." For the time being, those pro-space affirmations-oftentimes couched in such solemn language as, "The greatest tribute to the men and women of Columbia would be to carry on their work"-will dominate the debate.

But already, the skeptics and faultfinders are being heard. Here, for example, is a report from Sunday's Manchester Guardian: "Fears of a catastrophic shuttle accident were raised last summer with the White House by a former NASA engineer who pleaded for a presidential order to halt all further shuttle flights until safety issues had been addressed." And here's a headline atop a cutting article in the new Time magazine: "The Space Shuttle Must Be Stopped: It's costly, outmoded, impractical and, as we've learned again, deadly." Soon enough, more details and anecdotes-true or not-will come dribbling out, depicting reckless errors and fatal mistakes. Indeed, one can half-expect a report from France to proclaim that the "accident" was staged by the Pentagon at the direct order of President George W. Bush.

Then will come war on Iraq, and the whole controversy-naysayer and yeasayer alike-will be swept out of the headlines for months, if not forever. And what will emerge at the other end of the investigation, after the bombs stop dropping down on Baghdad-and after the reportorial bombshells stop bursting at NASA headquarters? Most likely, a discredited and shriveled piloted space program. Why? Because the glory of the Columbia crew will have to be shared with a new cohort of battlefield heroes, and the budget for future space missions will have been reallocated to other needs, from the Pentagon to prescription drugs. Yes, space will always have its advocates. But just as during the Vietnam War, today, during the Terror/Iraq War, the immediate demand for guns abroad and butter at home will surely crowd out the more abstract claims of the spacefaring future.

To be sure, space will not be entirely neglected. The U.S. military will surely continue its exo-atmospheric expansion. And a good thing, too; much of America's dominance depends on satellite communication and surveillance. And someday, maybe sooner than we think, America will put heavy weapons into orbit. But generals and admirals can do their war-work in space without putting men and women into space.

So what's the real case for space-space for people?

It's two-fold. First, in the long run, we will need space to be free. Second, we will need space to survive as a species. Freedom and survival: that's putting the hay down where the horse can get it. And that's what needs to be said, sooner rather than later-sooner, before it's too late.

Freedom? We need space for freedom? Aren't we fighting a war for freedom right now? Aren't we sure to win against Saddam Hussein and, one way or another, Osama Bin Laden? Most likely, we will prevail, big time. But that doesn't mean that the bad guys won't get off a lucky shot-a lucky weapon-of-mass-destruction shot. And if they do, then homeland security, from national ID cards to computer snoopers, will come down upon us and our civil liberties like an iron fist. And few will protest. To be sure, the crisis mode might ease up after awhile, but the lesson of big government is that once it gets big, it stays big.

Moreover, the world itself is getting smaller, and that's not good for the don't-tread-on-me ethos. President Bush came in as the sworn enemy of Clinton-era world-government projects, such as the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto agreement, but now, two years later, there's less discontinuity and more continuity between the presidencies than many Republicans might like to admit. Confronted with the need to maintain and strengthen his anti-terror/anti-"axis of evil" alliances, the President announced last year that he would rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. And he, or at least his administration, seems committed to an emerging "Kyoto Lite" system. And of course, building and rebuilding other countries-and curing them of AIDS-is not only expensive, but inherently multilateral. In the meantime, even organizations that most TechCentralStationeers probably endorse, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, all chip away a bit at American sovereignty.

And this is a Republican president we're talking about. What will happen under a future Democratic president? In the same way that the elder and younger Bush are known as "41" and "43," what if former president Bill Clinton is someday remembered as "42," and Hillary Rodham Clinton is known as "44"? Maybe we'll be spared that particular political fate. But just as government gets bigger here at home, no matter who's in charge, so government around the world will get bigger, too. Eventually, inevitably, superstates at home and abroad will start crowding us. And yet the physical world we live in stays the same size, offering no escape. A few years ago, many libertarians thought that the Internet would be a kind of Ayn-Randian refuge, but the regulators and tax collectors are now corralling that freezone. Here's a prediction: every year for the rest of our lives, the world will be knitted together a bit more closely, by this or that international agreement. Worrisome? Sure. Preventable? Probably not. It seems self-evident that if the earth is of a fixed size and the government is equally fixed in its Parkinson's Law-like growth pattern, then freedom will be crowded out.

So what's the answer? One word: space. In the past, Europeans could find freedom by coming to America, and Americans could find freedom by heading out west. But that frontier is long closed. And from now until the end of time, the feds will be closing in, looking for more things to regulate and red-tape. Freedom-lovers will resist, but if the past is any guide, the freedom-dislikers-most politicians and all bureaucrats, environmentalists, and egalitarians-will win more fights than they lose. That doesn't mean that America is destined to become another Maoist China; most likely, America in a globalized world will drift toward the global mean-which is to say, a condition of considerably less freedom than we have now.

But if Americans could travel, physically and permanently, to space-even if just to the moon, as in Robert Heinlein's libertarian classic, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress-then prospects for the survival of maximum human freedom would be greatly enhanced. Those who don't mind being niggled and nitpicked by the state could stay right here, but the mere existence of an exit-option for freedom-ophiles would serve as a check on the checkers.

Historically, the only way that the slow bureaucratic creep of government is reversed is through revolution or war. And that could happen. But there's a problem: the next American revolution won't be fought with muskets. It could well be waged with proliferated wonder-weapons. That is, about the time that American yeopersons decide to resist the encroachment of the United Nations, or the European Union-or the United States government-the level of destructive power in a future conflict could remove the choice expressed by Patrick Henry in his ringing cry, "Give me liberty, or give me death." The next big war could kill everybody, free and unfree alike.

Which leads to the second argument. Spaceship earth may not be as fragile as a space shuttle, but it's still fragile. By all means, let's have homeland defense and missile defense. But let's also get real. If the weapons get bigger, and the planet stays the same size, then prospects for human survival shrink accordingly. For the time being, North Korea seems to have gotten away with breaking out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Kim Jong Il's arsenal could be eliminated in the future, of course, but in the meantime, the atomic cat is out of the nuclear bag.

Writing in the February 3 Weekly Standard, Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington D.C., offers up scenarios for the spread of nuclear weapons that are much more compelling than the scenarios for their unspreading. Countries such as Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, he writes, have all flirted with the idea of building atomic weapons. And one could add to Sokolski's list other countries, such as Brazil, where the new president, Lula da Silva, seems to be forming an axis of anti-Americanism with the likes of Venezuela and Cuba.

Meanwhile, every one of those potential proliferators could be brought into line, and we'd still face the problem of "super-empowered individuals." Yup, the prospect of Moore's Law-computer power doubles every 18 months-affects cyber-geek and terror-creep alike. Such computational capacity is inherently "dual use" -the ultimate double-edged sword, hanging over all of us, to be wielded by some of us. As technofuturist Ray Kurzweil predicts, "We'll see 1,000 times more technological progress in the 21st century than we saw in the 20th." Most of that progress will be to the good, but not all. What could a hacker-terrorist alliance come up with, weapon-wise? There's only one way to find out.

Sooner or later, Moore's Law will meet Murphy's Law, and we'll realize just how vulnerable we all are, six billion souls, crowded into a narrow band of soil, stone, air and water, hugging the flimsy, filmy, easy-to-rub-off surface of the earth. Let's hope that before we have that rendezvous with deathly destiny, we've had the foresight to build an escape ladder for ourselves.

Some pro-space pragmatists will say that the American public, preoccupied with shuttle heroes, Saddam Hussein, and the stock market, is not going to be interested in long-term arguments about the future of freedom-even the future of human survival. Better, those alleged pragmatists will assert, to simply make once again the traditional arguments about the positive scientific and psychic spinoffs of space travel.

Those arguments are fine, as far as they go. But they don't go far, at least not far enough. That is, the "Tang and Teflon" argument, which lost much of its force three decades ago, is not going to recreate a strong pro-space constituency simply because it is repeated with renewed fervor. The ghosts of seven dead space-heroes may summon spaceniks back into space, but more risk-averse Americans will question the cost.

The people of this country-and of the world-need to be told the truth. And here's the truth: if we don't create an off-earth option in the relatively near future, we risk not only our liberty, but also our lives. The sooner the United States declares its independence from these 50 geographic states, proclaiming instead that our sacred honor should flourish everywhere, on and off the earth, the better for all earthlings. America may be the last best hope for mankind, but the emphasis should always be on the "best," not the "last."

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