Forty years ago this week, the first human being stepped on the Moon. It was the dawn of a new age, the first baby step to exploring the rest of the Solar System and eventually the Universe.
And it went nowhere. Or so Tom Wolfe argues in a provocative op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times. We went to the Moon, Wolfe says, to beat the Russians, and once we’d done that, the space program wasn’t that important.
In fact, he likens the space program to the old fashioned idea of “single combat” – sending the best warriors from each side out to fight each other one on one. In the case of the Moon program, it was the best team of scientists and engineers, rather than a single warrior, though the astronauts and cosmonauts were the public face of the battle.
Given the current state of NASA, I fear Wolfe is right. We got to the Moon, and we stopped, because we’d won. The U.S. government, at least, wasn’t thinking about “boldly going where no one has gone before.”
Some of this failure seems to be tied to the human tendency to think about short-term goals. Some of it is a basic flaw in all competitive enterprises – victors tend to rest on their laurels if there’s no competitor creeping up on them.
And some of it is embedded in our limited ideas about warriorship. The space program became a substitute for war, and when we won, we didn’t need it anymore.
But warriorship is about much more than beating an enemy. Who else would you send out to explore, except a warrior? Warriors are brave – they may be as scared as anyone else, but they’ve learned how to live with fear. They are willing to risk their lives to find out what’s over the next mountain, or on the next planet.
I concede that the history of warrior-led exploration contains far too many examples of violence and genocide. But we don’t have to stay stuck in our violence-driven history.
A team of philosopher-warriors could lead our space exploration efforts. Wolfe says what NASA lacked was philosophers (though I suspect the dearth of philosophers and long term thinkers in Congress was probably a bigger problem than the lack of them at NASA). And warriorship and philosophy are intimately related – my Aikido sensei, Mitsugi Saotome, frequently presents himself as a philosophy teacher rather than a martial arts master.
Today, of course, with a devastated economy and the looming spectre of climate change, many will argue that we can’t afford a space program. I’d take the opposite angle: we can’t afford not to develop space exploration.
Our various crises today are the result of spending money on the wrong things – on the trappings of wealth instead of infrastructure and the future. We do need to change how we use our resources, but given the problems staring us in the face, I don’t think we can wait until we think we can afford an expanded space program to develop it.
The technology we now take for granted was given its jump start by the space program, which required very high-end computing and development of a variety of complex materials. Further exploration will undoubtedly open up all manner of new industries.
For example, I know physicists who are chomping at the bit to mine the Asteroid Belt for a variety of elements, not to mention water. And that’s just one idea among thousands.
Besides, sending our warriors out to see what’s on Mars – not to mention what’s beyond the Solar System – is much more useful than starting unnecessary wars for them to fight.
But the most important reason to send our warriors – followed by scientists, entrepreneurs, and, in some cases, colonists – our to explore the Universe is more basic: Humans dream. Taking steps to make dreams come true is as important to human life as food and water.
Yes, you can’t survive without food and water, but what’s the point in surviving if you don’t have any chance of achieving your dreams?
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