TCS Daily

This New Ocean

By Charles T. Rubin - January 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Terraforming Mars. Finding alien life, intelligent or otherwise. Preventing the next big asteroid from striking Earth, and saving humanity. Technological innovation and resource exploitation. New societies on new worlds that will get it right this time, freed from the terrible errors of Earth's history. Finding our destiny in the stars. There is no lack of big reasons to support a reinvigorated manned space program.

And most of them don't matter. They are unlikely to have anything to do with the next five, ten or twenty years -- the time horizons within which we can make reasonable political and economic decisions. As a result, what is already happening is that those who have serious doubts about the case for space are making the classic argument of scarce resources: with so much attention needed to the grave problem of [fill in the blank] here on Earth, how can we afford to squander more money in space? This problem is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that there is something nerdy about many of the big reasons for a more aggressive manned space program -- great for scientists and engineers, but a little distant from the everyday for most people.

Big ideas and aspirations are important. Long term thinking is important. But it all has to be connected to something that is broadly attractive and understandable in the here and now. Too many space enthusiasts are apologetic that our last great manned effort in space was "really" about competition with the Soviet Union. Why is that so terrible? Two powerful nations, two competing paradigms of justice and the good life, our painfully public attempts, their secretive efforts. The Cold War story is not something we can, or would want to, replicate. But the connection of space exploration with that noble cause is a hint about the competitive basis for support of exploratory efforts that is only confirmed by a host of additional historical examples.

Now we are more likely to hear that space exploration needs to be about cooperation, and about forming a more powerful sense of human identity. "You can't see national boundaries when you look at the Earth from space." But that truism conceals an important hint about what is wrong with too much current space advocacy. In fact, you can't see anything of human scale and interest when you look at the Earth from far enough away in space to see it whole. Our day to day concerns and strivings, our plans and hopes as members of families, communities and nations are all invisible. It is an alien view. True, a popular manned space program will continue, as it has in the past, to pull us beyond our usual horizons, and leaven the day to day with something exciting and remarkable. But the disconnect cannot become too great; you can't sell space to most people on the basis of things that might happen decades or centuries from now.

Since it is not obvious who at this point we might compete with in space, we will need to dig a little deeper to find that connection today. While watching the winning and losing is one thing people like about competition, it is not the only thing. Competition provides the occasion for all kinds of valuable and memorable qualities to be displayed: courage, resourcefulness, risk-taking. While it does not always bring about the best in us, it can call forth virtues of hard work, dedication, persistence, and sacrifice.

In short, competition is one way of displaying serious human excellence. To speak more precisely, the story of exploration and colonization in the past has always been a story of heroes and villains, of testing the limits of human endurance, of great achievements and ill-fortune. Space exploration will likewise call for knowledge, courage, ingenuity, and a host of other virtues, even as it admittedly provides an arena for less admirable human traits to emerge. A popular case for space will depend on its ability to show the effort as a grand arena which will call forth stirring examples of human effort, accomplishment and failure, stories that will, like all such big stories, illuminate and shape the mundane world.

The virtues of exploration are certainly not unknown in today's space program. But the goals are structured in such a way that unfortunately they stand revealed more in moments of tragedy than triumph. Our astronauts risk their lives in something called a "shuttle." The name has all the romance of a commuter bus, and NASA acts as if that routinization is a good thing. Scientists and engineers go to great lengths of intelligence and ingenuity to produce remarkable results from their robotic spacecraft, results that for brief periods may ignite public interest. Yet the agency will never garner the support necessary for real exploration if the biggest risk to participants is getting carpal-tunnel syndrome from keying in commands to remote robotic probes.

A sober case for space, then, will embrace risk and the varied human characteristics and motives that in the face of risk have allowed exploration in the past. While making the most of our admiration of effort and excellence, it will not build on utopian hopes for a reformed human future. Those readily disappointed expectations would kill the project just as surely as would failing to overcome the fears that the unknown will arouse.

Doesn't Earth already allow ample opportunities for the cultivation and display of human virtues -- and vices? True enough, and from this point of view, it is a strength of modern societies that they already provide such diverse opportunities for people to cultivate excellence. Still, serious manned space exploration is in our time the chance to "push the envelope," to test human virtues against new adversities. We will learn much about the world "out there" from renewed human space exploration, but the stories we will remember will show how the perennial challenges and possibilities of human life gain enriched meaning on "this new ocean."

Charles T. Rubin is an associate professor of Political Science at Duquesne University.


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