The practice does not invalidate the principle

By Razib Khan | July 9, 2011 11:08 pm

This is a big time for space, though not in a good way. The James Webb Telescope is in jeopardy, and the space shuttle program finally expired. I don’t talk about space too much on this weblog because I wouldn’t add any value. I leave the details and nuances to those who know better. But in my earliest interests in science astronomy and physics played a big part in bringing home to me the wonder of it all. At the end of the day nature is one, and the great mystery is divided into pieces due to our own cognitive limitations, not because it lacks coherence.

As far as personal biography one of my first memories which has an exact date is the return of Columbia from orbit on April 14th, 1981.* I recall being somewhat confused as to the shape of the vessel. It seemed awkward and ungainly even compared to the small planes which I had in my toy collection at the time. As I came to understand the nature of the space shuttle I felt a conjoined tendency toward awe at its technological sophistication and ambivalence at the expense of manned space flight. I do not cry for the passing of the practice of space flight which the shuttle embodied, but I do worry about the diminution of the principle of looking to the heavens.

Not to be excessively grave about it all, but the nature of the discussion of space in the public forum is I think a signal as to the health of the body politic. If the arguments boil down to pragmatic and utilitarian talking points I suspect that we’ve lost the game already, that society has lost the will to look above and strive for something more than our material sustenance. In ancient China there was a debate between radical utilitarians and more traditional humanists exemplified by the followers of Confucius. The utilitarians criticized the Confucians for supporting luxuries such as music and ritual when war and famine were part of the human condition, to which the Confucians responded that music and ritual were part of the full lived human life. The arts and traditional forms did not need utilitarian justification, they were the ends of existence in some deep sense. We would not flourish as humans without them. The behavioral complexities which characterize us as a species are elaborations on our natural sentiments. History bore out the validity of the arguments of the Confucians, insofar as the moral vision which they outlined was the robust foundation for a political and social order which persisted for over 2,000 years. It is as if the elites of the 19th century West were not just steeped in the thought of Seneca, but that they were direct continuous and unbroken intellectual descendants of Seneca and the order which he held up.

It is a cliché that man does not live by bread alone, but a true one indeed. Our lives are filled with baroque cultural richness. We may find the avocations and passions of others trivial or silly, but we do not deny the principle of their importance in a well lived life. But what of society and a culture? Athens of the 5th century before Christ was a brutal place characterized by unimaginable squalor, and yet it shines down to us today because of its cultural ferment. Even when the larders were bare, the Agora was rich and teeming with activity, direction, and spirit. You may accept that a society is simply the sum of its individual parts, so that there is no necessity for public direction and collective unity of purpose. Individual brilliance aggregated is all that is necessary for flourishing.

That is not a proposition I can or will dismiss out of hand, but what about the rest who do not accept this? What shall the orientation of our society be? How do we as a nation, as a culture, direct our collective energies outward? What will edify us now, and echo down to generations to come and uplift them? Your specific answer may vary and differ. But you can accept the principle of it. When speaking of space I too often get the sense that we forget this. Do we really want to continue to repeat the laundry list of reasons why space exploration is beneficial to our material wants and comforts? This reduction of a grand endeavour which should sate our existential desires into a means of production in our consumer culture is low indeed. How will we measure the gains in “utils” achieved because we are among the generations which have seen with our own eyes this world of ours from afar?

We may argue in the trenches about the effective use of funds on specific projects, or the waste of monies on manned space flight. A range of products which benefited from the demand induced by massive public outlays on high technology in the public space sector may be impressive. But space is more in the class of the Pyramids of Giza, the Pantheon, and the Parthenon. The point is the wonder. I hope we don’t forget that as a society.

* There are memories which I have with I know predate this specific date, but I am not certain as to the date of those with such specificity.

MORE ABOUT: Shuttle, Space

Comments (18)

  1. Mark

    We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ Not quite the quote I need, but I think that happiness in a society includes extravagances (?) that the poor, like everyone else, can look and dream to. Dreary-grey for all did not work.

  2. Nullius in Verba

    Others are still looking to the heavens, although they have a way to go yet. Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow, XCOR, Masten, Armadillo, Boeing, Reaction Engines, Sierra Nevada and others.

    The argument is not so much over whether we want to (or will) do it, but over how we ought to pay for it. The Pyramids and the Parthenon were built on the backs of slave labour.

    Our consumer culture and its means of production are a far greater monument – one of greater significance, complexity, scale, impact, benevolence, effort, knowledge, ingenuity, scope, capability, and benefit. It has made cultural achievements possible that would have been unimaginable to the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, as well as materially easing the lives of billions. And its legacy will be passed down the generations, compounded exponentially to allow our children and grandchildren to reach even greater heights. Even the stars, if they want it.

  3. Insightful

    I hope the NASA space shuttle designers and engineers are helping or being hired by these private companies so that they do not have to reinvent the ‘wheel’ with regards to getting into space. With their expertise the time it takes to put such things together in a newer, smaller design can also be shaved…

  4. Nullius in Verba

    There is certainly considerable contact between NASA and the private space ventures.

    I couldn’t say which way the technical expertise was flowing. It’s a very different approach, and NASA-style solutions may be of the sort that they wouldn’t even be considered in a commercial engineering approach. It’s like the difference in style between big 1970s mainframes and homebrew PCs…

  5. The Pyramids and the Parthenon were built on the backs of slave labour.

    do you know anything about the construction of the parthenon? you’re wrong about the pyramids and slave labor from what i know, though it’s a common misperception from films. but if you’re going to talk about something, it would be nice if you worked with post-elementary school levels of knowledge!

  6. I was surprised by this post. I’m impressed by the space program and the pyramids, but still think it would have been better without them (unmanned satellites for communication excepted).

  7. Nullius in Verba

    The Egyptians (and Greeks) kept slaves – which is what I was thinking of. Whether the pyramids were built by slaves is unclear. There are worker tombs that are of better quality than would be expected in more modern forms of slavery, but whether that applied to all of them or precisely what the arrangements were is not clear. There are obviously certain PR implications for the Egyptian tourist industry riding on the point.

    But that’s beside the point.

  8. Well said. I miss the idea of human (though not necessarily exclusively American) space exploration, but I do not miss the Shuttles’ many trips to nowhere and the frequency with which the STS killed its crews. A better mission (preparing for a trip to Mars) AND spending the money to build a safer spaceplane (or some sort of affordable heavy lift capability) would have been better. I certainly hope to see the James Webb Telescope survive and thrive. There’s lots of cool work we can do with telepresence until we get fired up around an interesting human mission.

  9. The dust had barely settled from Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon before the whining started about how “we should be spending this money to solve problems here on earth instead of putting men on the moon.” You can be sure the problems they meant were not video-on-demand or 4G access. They were talking about poverty and cancer – well, thank god we stopped sending money on sending men to the moon and spent that money eliminating poverty and curing cancer – that worked out great.

    What else would the Egyptians have spent their money on if not the pyramids? Whatever it might have been, it would have been a complete waste, as no society then was capable of actually investing in anything that wouldn’t just extend the Malthusian trap a generation or two. Today, the total NASA budget (<$20b) is less than what we spend each year on Pell grants ($23b) – I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to guess that NASA might just deliver a bit more societal value than Pell Grant recipients.

  10. Modern space programs remind me of monument building practices from the neolithic era onwards: basically a way to mobilise a society towards a common goal in times of plenty without the otherwise inevitable fracturing of social cohesion. As the American era ends and the surpluses get tied up in special interest-driven wars and kleptocracies, the monumentalism of space will be taken up by other countries. China seems to get this: a space program is something they can take pride in, but which is far cheaper than militarism. For a short time, say from 1961 to 1975, this was also the promise of space in the US. Since then it has been outcompeted by militarism. One can hope that China, India, Brazil and the other emerging nations take the space route rather than the military. I suspect one or two Islamic republics might also. Indonesia would do well, given its equatorial location…

  11. The Egyptians (and Greeks) kept slaves – which is what I was thinking of. Whether the pyramids were built by slaves is unclear.

    well, no shit. if the building of pyramids by slaves is unclear to you, don’t use that talking point for rhetorical utility. it makes me suspicious of what other shit you’re trying to pull.

  12. Nullius in Verba


    Tch. No need to start using bad language.

    I was clarifying the point that I hadn’t said the pyramids were built by slaves. I said they were built on the backs of slave labour, in the same sense that some say the British Empire or the prosperity of the American South were. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were able to do much of what they did because their economies were founded on conquest, looting, and slavery.

    It was a minor point, not worth making all this fuss over, that those great achievements of the past came at a price. The argument is not over whether such things are worth doing – of course they are – but of how you pay for them when you don’t have enough resources of your own to do it.

    Whereas the achievements of the market economy – which you’re so dismissive of – is not only admirable in its own right, but makes such things as space shuttles possible without the need for slaves. I argue in favour of your goal, but am saying it is that utilitarian, consumerist world that will make it possible. I was expecting you to argue with that rather than some nit-pick over whether slaves built the pyramids. You don’t even know that they didn’t.

    I guess I must have hit a sore point, for you to be this hostile after one blog comment – I’ll count that as an achievement. Do you greet everyone you talk to this way?

  13. I’m just going to leave this Babylon 5 quote here:

    “Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes…[and] all of this…all of this…was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.”

  14. Tch. No need to start using bad language.

    no one tells me how i should speak on my own weblog. if you do so again, i’ll ban you (if you want, i can ban you now if you’re offended by my attitude, many are, and i’m happy to not hear from them again).

    as a libertarian-leaning person i’m pro-market. by and large i have no great issue with that, and you don’t need to lecture me about economic history. i know quite all about how nice it is to break out of the malthusian trap. your comment was addressed to issues which are orthogonal to my intent here, so i didn’t engage it.

    Do you greet everyone you talk to this way?

    i have a tendency to verbally bludgeon people from what i’ve been told. i have no regrets. i keep getting comments.

  15. Denis Vluegt

    I see three, or perhaps two ways that “we” (including our descendants in whatever form — human, hybrid, or autonomous self-aware machine) will get to the stars.

    (1) By working out and following a 1000-year plan, incrementally building up and setting aside the enormous wealth required to fund such an undertaking, being patient in the full knowledge that investments made today will benefit not our grandchilden but people as far removed from us as Genghis Khan.

    (2) In fits and starts, haphazardly, setting short-term goals that have no meaning or payoff in and of themselves (a moon base, boots on Mars, boots on asteroids), always threatened by funding cutoffs.

    (3) Setting aside human spaceflight now and waiting for a compelling argument to come along if it is to be restarted. In the meantime, keep funding robotic space exploration and experiments.

    I don’t see our attention-deficit society capable of adopting the first route. The second and the third (or maybe they are one and the same) are more in tune with us. But the likelihood that we will break out from our solar system is still very low. If it were easy to do, other technological civilizations in our galaxy would have done so already. (The Fermi Paradox.)

    It’s also unclear to me why we should rack our brains today about outcomes that are dozens of generations in the future, when the world will have changed beyond our imagining. Those future generations may curse us for having wasted valuable non-renewable resources on techniques that were bound to fail, from their better-informed perspectives, while other, more urgent and important problems, went untended.

  16. Nullius in Verba

    Hmm. I was just looking at your magazine’s terms and conditions, which say the following is prohibited anywhere on the site: “Uploading, posting, emailing, transmitting or otherwise making available any content that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, libelous, or obscene;” I would have assumed from that I wouldn’t get away with posting four-letter obscenities on here – am I misinterpreting?

    I don’t mind rough treatment from people who are prepared to accept it in return. That’s just a matter of style.

    But if you operate different standards for others and yourself – if you’d find it offensive and unacceptable for people to say it to you knowing that you’re the sort who would cheerfully say it to them – well, let’s just say it doesn’t exactly reflect well on the magazine. I’m not going to insult you by saying you’re that sort of person – you can confirm (or deny) that for yourself if you want.

    I didn’t realise the slave/pyramid point was aligned with your intent here. So that was why you engaged on that particular issue?

    Glad to hear you’re libertarian-leaning and pro-market. I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that I’m pro-“looking to the heavens”.

  17. ackbark

    Consumer culture as a monument to the ages?

    I really don’t feel a sense of wonder or purpose or national validation when buying Fritos –it’s just utilitarian, I don’t learn anything from it and no one in the future will learn anything from it or find any especial interest in it. Consumer culture can tell us nothing about anything, it’s just utilitarian.

    It’s like saying farming the Nile valley was a greater thing than the pyramids.

    The NASA budget is less than we spend every year on air conditioning in Afghanistan.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar