Reacting to the “zeroing out” of manned space flight in NASA’s budget – something forecasted months ago, but, according to reports, now a step closer to reality – Dafydd ab Hugh sounds some familiar themes, fortissimo, from the HotAir Greenroom (emphasis in the original):
I’ve always considered a presidential administration’s commitment to manned space exploration an excellent barometer of its belief in the grandeur of Western civilization; its belief in America’s future and exceptional greatness; and its understanding of what Konstantin Tsiolkovsky meant when he said that, “a planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” Simply put, an administration that believes in manned space exploration — believes in Mankind.
The rest of D.a.H’s piece fills out a standard anti-Obama polemic: a – (as above) define something as wonderful, necessary, or wonderful and necessary; b – note Obama’s opposition to a program or policy associated with that something; c – main development: speculate as melodramatically as possible on what it all says about the man who was somehow – tragically, insanely, apocalyptically – elected president.
Here’s ab Hugh’s finale:
There we have it: A grandiose narcissist who sees himself as simply too big for America’s britches must be horrified by a program of manned space exploration, the consequences of which threaten to overwhelm his own meagre achievements, assuming one can find any, in a Noachian deluge of science, technology, and future shock. Indeed, if we indeed returned to the Moon on a permanent basis, using that as a stepping stone to Mars and the rest of the solar system, then that would likely be the only thing anyone would remember, “generations from now,” about the administration of Barack Obama…
How could a creature like Obama possibly live with such a rival without scratching her eyes out?
What’s missing amidst the italics and boldface is, of course, any notice of any other conceivable rationale for the cancellation of the “return to the Moon” effort.
Some react with a sense of melancholy, with nostalgia and loss, viewing the difference between old visions of space travel and actual achievements. That’s how I initially reacted last year when possible cancellation of the “Constellation” program was being discussed, but can’t we recognize that there’s a lot more to this issue?
I’ve done some thinking and remedial reading on space exploration in recent months, and I’m not sure anyone has an adequate answer to some basic questions.
What if sending human bodies up into space is a dream nurtured from too much pulp science fiction and an insufficient appreciation of what the effort really entails? Among scientists and engineers, as opposed to science fabulists, the trade-offs are well-understood: For now and the foreseeable future, sending human beings and all that’s required to support them into space increases costs by orders of magnitude, while imposing severe limitations on possible missions.
What if, for a similar or even smaller investment, we can go much further, faster; learn more; develop more useful technologies; and bring much more back – if we leave the sacks of protoplasm in the planetary environment to which they are heavily adapted? What if manned space exploration is impeded by the inescapable requirement to transfer surrogate ecosystems into outer space along with the organisms (us) that can’t subsist without them?
What if, in short, the argument for manned space travel often amounts to a weird kind of Luddite romanticism offered in the worst possible context for it – something like arguing against further development beyond current UAVs because America should depend on real human pilots for air flight, or against capping the Deepwater Horizon leak unless it can be done by human beings on scene, 1 mile beneath the surface of the ocean?
Long duration space travel isn’t about shooting bodies into the great void. It’s not about escaping the Earth: It’s about transporting miniaturized versions of the Earth into space, and then protecting and supplying them. With currently available technologies that means lifting pre-fabricated micro-Earths from the surface of the planet into orbit, and then sustaining them over time and across vast distances. The physics are unforgiving, as unforgiving as the radioactive vacuum. Learning how to handle these matters might be very worthwhile over the very long term, but it’s a lot easier to achieve in a movie or for a sci-fi novel’s cover art than with real people and machines.
I don’t mean at all to suggest that the argument has been settled forever, but there’s a serious, interesting, and useful discussion here to be had – one that doesn’t have anything to do with fantasias on the “creature” in the White House.
And I’m also not picking on ab Hugh. The suppression of rational discussion in favor of emotionalism and empty, exaggerated polemics is becoming typical for the Right, ca. 2010. In my view it extends to stunted, merely ideological discussions of health care, economics and fiscal matters, the conflict formerly known as the War on Terror, immigration, the disastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, energy, and every other intermittently hot political topic.
Intellectual compromise and emotional appeals are unavoidable in politics and governance, but overindulgence in this approach may already be exacting a price that’s hidden by the popular reaction to the real and imagined failings of the Obama presidency and of Democratic governance generally. More important, it tends to leave whatever victors of whatever elections, in effect our society, ill-prepared to cope with real decisions and real trade-offs – right here on Earth.