Friday, September 23, 2005

To the MOON, Alice!

Okay, there's been a lot of joking around on the left side of the blogosphere about NASA's planned return to the moon. 'It's obviously a ploy to have a big number in the budget that someone can cut and say they don't need to roll back the tax giveaways to the rich', say the cynical. The conspiratorial wing claims it's a new giant boondoggle to give money away to corporate cronies, and there's probably a bit of truth in that one.

But the Liberal Conventional Wisdom, alas, seems to be 'as long as there's poverty and suffering on earth, we can't afford a space program'.

I'm going to depart of Liberal Orthodoxy and claim we can't afford to NOT have a space program.

Look around you - we as a nation are considerably stupider than we were back in the manned spaceflight heyday. Smartass little MBAs at FEMA tell Governor Bill Richardson he can't deploy his National Guard troops to Louisiana until he has the paperwork filled out just right. Getting airlifts of supplies to people stranded on the ground in New Orleans is apparently beyond our technical capabilities, although we managed to keep the city of West Berlin supplied with everything it needed for almost a year during the Berlin Airlift over half a century ago. (The operation was delivering supplies one day after the start of the blockade.)

We can't move a million people out of an endangered town with days of warning. We're getting stupider and shallower, people, and it's our own fault.

Can you imagine 'Uncle Walter' Cronkite allowing a flat-earther to appear on his show to 'balance' someone from NASA talking about orbiting a non-flat earth? The mind reels. In those days, even people who didn't understand science respected it. Now you can't talk about anything without providing an alternate viewpoint from some crackpot fringe group, giving them legitimacy they don't deserve and literally unbalancing the coverage by making it appear that they do.

It doesn't matter that some huge percentage of the US population believes the earth is 6000 years old - they're still wrong. And 'respecting their viewpoint' makes us all a little bit dumber. If NINETY-NINE percent of the population believed the earth was flat, that would not change the fact that it's spheroidal.

Science meant something in the manned-spaceflight days. And it could mean something again, if we only got over our Political Correctness and home-schooled 'respect for the views of others'.

A manned mission to the moon, and building permanent bases there and on Mars, is not a waste of money. We could use some experience in closed system recycling, in terraforming and alternate energy. Because we're quite likely going to need to know how to do those things here - someday we may be called upon to terraform ... well, Terra. Could we do it now? Hell, no.

I'm a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy literature. And there's a common plot device often found in these genres - stumbling across artifacts of an ancient civilization more advanced than our own. While I enjoy these stories, I always used to roll my eyes at this point. Because technology used to only go in one direction. How could any civilization with such-and-so a technological capability come to lose it? Well, apparently by ignoring science for a few decades, putting morons in charge of education, allowing people to teach mythology as science and pretending that facts are just a matter of opinion, all of which are equally valid.

We used to know how to send people to the moon. We can't do that now. Doesn't that scare anybody but me?


At 9:07 PM, Anonymous CaseyL said...

Not just "yea!" but "Hell, yes!" (And thanks for the compliment on my post over at Drum's place.)

I part company with most of my fellow lefties on a few important issues. Science and space exploration are definitely a couple of those issues. It grieves me no end that progressives are willing to give up on even the idea of space: not only that they don't understand there are real-world benefits, but also- in fact, mostly - that their souls are so stuck in the quotidian.

A couple times in my life I've been out in the desert at night, and could look up and see the whole damn Milky Way spread out from one end of the horizon to the other, dust clouds and clusters and all. It always made me feel homesick: all those other places, other worlds, that I'd never see; all those other landscapes I'd never set foot on.

When I was much younger, though, I never doubted for one instant that the next generation - or, surely, the one after that - would have the opportunity.

It never entered my mind that America would decide space wasn't worth the trouble.

I'm not sure if my lifelong love for science fiction hopelessly skewed my perceptions - or if we as a nation really have become that torpid.

At 9:11 AM, Blogger Noumenon said...

Your anecdotes about being stupider are just golden agery about an unsupportable hypothesis. (Unsupportable in that there's no data that could conceivably prove it and in that it ignores many other trends such as better nutrition and education in the third world and rising IQ scores over time.)

"We could use some experience in closed system recycling, in terraforming and alternate energy."

I could use some experience in building survival huts with my own hands, too, but there are much better things to spend my time and resources on. If we need a new habitat for humans, let's look into building under the ocean -- a much more fertile ground for science, as well.

Bottom line, cutting manned flight: good for science. Throwing bad money after good: bad for science. Don't be so romantic.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Arachnae said...

oh, that's one I forgot, thanks!

Tactic number 14B - characterize the other's position as 'romantic', thus setting yourself up as 'hard-headed' and 'realistic'.

Man, what wusses we raised. I bet we're really proud.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Gerry said...

The simple fact is that the Chinese are going to beat us to the moon by about ten years. They have the money to boldly dream and make new realities. The US is now simply too broke financially and spritually.

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Arachnae said...

Well, better the Chinese than NOBODY.

And of course, it will be a great galvanizer of the mouth-breathing Far Right into pushing space as an American priority again. After all, the Russians launched our space program in the first place...

(I'm old enough to remember Sputnik.)

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Noumenon said...

Tactic number 14B - characterize the other's position as 'romantic', thus setting yourself up as 'hard-headed' and 'realistic'.

What's the tactic number for describing your opponents as "the mouth-breathing Far Right"? There was plenty of serious content in my post -- questioning the factual support for your statement that people are stupider, asking why we should prioritize the moon over the ocean, arguing that money spent on the space program does not advance science as you say it does. Namecalling you "romantic" was a rhetorical flourish. Your reply is all rhetorical flourish and no content at all.

At 6:16 PM, Anonymous trilobite said...

It scares the hell out of me, too. And sure, it would be nice to learn how to terraform, might save the species in the near future. But you've got it exactly backwards. We didn't get smarter because we had a space program that worked, we had a space program that worked because we were smarter. Or to be precise, we decided to get serious about science, which included getting a space program that worked, because the Soviet Union was beating our pants off in math and chess, and then it launched up Sputnik and Gargarin. So science, especially space science, became patriotic. State and federal governments made money available for science classes, businesses sponsored competitions, and we all worshipped our astronauts.

But without a specific national threat to aim at, re-creating a moon program will not resurrect national respect for rationalism. That's Cargo Cult thinking. Build it all you like, they won't come.

Much more likely, we won't be able to build it at all because there's no pressing need and the money looks so much nicer when it's spent on pork that is called space-related. We'll keep on being just as incompetent about space exploration as we have been since we gave up in the late 70s, we'll just piss away even more money on the failures.

We'll return to rationalism only when we perceive that it will help us against a real threat again. For that, we need a real threat (terrorism scarcely counts so far, and I say that as a former New Yorker and current Washingtonian), the ability to recognize it when we see it, and the grit to tackle it rather than blame it on some minority group. The space program is simply irrelevant to this.


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