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.