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Sunday, February 02, 2003

Bloggers and the Dreams of Future Past

The other day I wrote about the loss of the Challenger, and how one of my professors used the occasion to rant against manned space flight. I think I forgot to mention that he taught Astrophysics. Huh. He was the most obnoxious, but several of the other professors held somewhat the same views, if less violent in the expression of them.

Their take was mostly that there is only so much budget for science, and that of all the worthy science of the world, that which can be done by humans in space is way down the list. Far below, say, their own research.

A few of them echoed the views I heard of non-scientists, that money spent in space is wasted money that could have been spent on saving starving crippled big-eyed kittens. This was a purely moral position, rather than a practical one, inasmuch as about 50 times the amount of money is already spent on big-eyed kittens as on space exploration.

My own research is of a very non-commercial nature, and when strangers ask me what it is I do, I always get the big-eyed kittens speech. My relatives tend to think that way too.

When I was a kid, I was very gung-ho for space, but after the Apollo missions turned into Skylab and then into the shuttle, with no measurable progress toward wider goals, well, then I kind of lost interest. It wasn't that I didn't think space exploration---manned space exploration---wasn't important, it was just that I didn't believe it had any public support. After all, most of my colleagues and relatives shared this view, quoted in today's Houston Chronicle (sorry, couldn't find a link):

Jenny Raab, a federal employee from the Washington area, said she hoped the Columbia disaster would make policy-makers realize the space program is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

"It's rough on our economy to see more money poured down in this black hole," she said.

Many of my relatives thought of themselves as poor, and didn't see why federal money should go toward prancing around in space, rather than to them.

For others, maybe, it was a Cold War thing. During the Cold War, space was considered (by some) to be "vital" in competing with the Russians. It was all about our "national prestige". Well, a lot of people didn't care whether we had more prestige than the Russians (how arrogant!), and/or didn't think this was a very important area in which to compete. (On the other hand, some people thought space flight was useless, but competing in the Olympics was absolutely vital.)

In his book ...the Heavens and the Earth, Walter McDougall notes frequently that the "national prestige" facet of the space race was to win what we would today call "hearts and minds" among the non-aligned (or shakily-aligned) nations. Reading that, I was very surprised that so much energy was spent persuading poor people in other countries that success in space exploration meant very much to them. Why would it work for them when it didn't work for the only-somewhat-poor of the US?

I suppose the space program could have been sold as vital for its military uses, but then we would have been seen as bloodthirsty old warmongers, and besides, we and the Russians signed a treaty outlawing military uses of space. And we all know that no one ever ignores treaties.

But generally, especially toward the tail end of the Cold War, manned space exploration was sold as science, despite suggestions that lab experiments on the shutle were a solution in search of a problem. It really should have been presented as a grand quest, exploration for exploration's sake. But in those dry and cynical times, no one wanted to pay for starry- (or nerdy-)eyed dreams.

So we got the space shuttle, which was fine for those first few steps. Have to crawl before you can run, right? Except it seems we did nothing but crawl, and didn't even make preparations to walk. I don't blame this on the administrators (though perhaps they come in for their share of the blame), but on the leadership, and mostly on the taxpayers, who have lost that sense of THE FUTURE! that I remember.

On Friday, Lileks wrote the most depressing---and to my mind, foolish---thing I've ever read from him:

Maybe it's just me, but it seems as if we stopped looking ten, twenty years ahead, stopped conjuring up these worlds in which everything looked new and improved. If that's so: why?

Perhaps it's because the present makes those old visions of the future look infantile and silly. We're not wearing one-piece jumpsuits and taking meals from a pill-dispensing machines, or flying off to work on jetpacks. We have the stuff that counts...

The very idea of the future is undergoing a renovation - it's not a city on the other side of a wall. The best lesson may be this: there is no wall. In the end the very idea of "The Future" may turn out to be a 20th century conceit, the reason the globe churned itself up fighting one rancid conception of utopia after the other. The future is back to being what it always was: an accumulation of tomorrows, not a wholesale refutation of today.

He has a point about the rancid utopias, the Nazism and Stalinism (and a whole bunch of isms that still exist today, among which I would name environmentalism and anti-capitalismism) which were going to reshape the future and populate it with New People who were unlike the old, inferior style of human.

But I can think of nothing more boring, nothing less likely to bring about THE FUTURE (rather than just more of the past), than the idea that the future will be just like the past, only more so. Ugh. Those old visions don't look silly because they didn't come about as planned. They look silly for the anachronistic specks of past caught in the vision of the future.

Take, for example, Star Trek. I love Star Trek. It may have saved my life, as I might one day get around to explaining. But it does look silly today. And for what? The spacecraft design? The very idea of space travel? The phasers? No. For the hairdos, and the miniskirts, the fumbling, stumbling, yet (in the person of Kirk) obsessive attitude they had toward sex. Nasty sand particles of the '60s embedded in the spinach of the future. [Note to self: work on that metaphor before becoming famous author.] They probably thought those were the best parts of the '60s, the ones the future would most like to keep.

Which leads me, at long, long, last, to my point. The other day several bloggers talked about the Challenger explosion, and yesterday we lost Columbia. And in almost every case, the emphasis was on getting the space program back on its feet---on its feet, not its knees, where it has been crawling. And dammit, fund it and make it go somewhere, not just piddle around hoping no one with a budgetary axe notices its existence, as it has been lo these thirty years.

I was astounded. Here I am reading a bunch of small-government righties (for the most part) and most of you think that in that teeny tiny government there ought to be a real space program. Damn! It must be youth. In the Challenger comments I found that most of you are snotty young kids who had to have Mommy explain to you what all the fuss was about. You kids, with your Nintendo and your Air Jordans and your pierced bellybuttons and your fully-funded space programs...

Man. Maybe THE FUTURE! is back again. I'd better start saving for a flying car.

(Oh, and if you want facts and hard evidence on this topic, and strong opinions about who's responsible, go visit Simberg. All's I got is impressionism, so to speak.)


For an utterly typical view and an unconvincing conversion, see here. Here's a fellow writing in the SMH who went to Florida to visit the peaceful, loving birdies at the Merritt Island wildlife refuge, but was delayed for a bit by the security over the Columbia launch.

His initial evaluation of the space program:

Another multibillion-dollar pop by man at the stars. Grossly extravagant, obscenely nationalistic and, as even President Bush acknowledged when he tried to make sense of the astronauts' deaths yesterday, almost underwhelmingly routine.

Having nothing better to do while waiting, he "reluctantly" visited KSFC, and then saw the shuttle launch, and changed his mind. He now believes that:

...missions such as Columbia's remind us of our community of interest...

"Our community of interest"---there's a stirring vision created by the Workers' Committe for the Promulgation of Foreward-Looking RightThink. Feh. Phooey on you and your shrill horror at our obscene nationalism and gross extravagance, Huxley. Warm fuzzy gushing about our "community of interest" does not launch starships. Obscene nationalism and itchy curiosity and crazed optimism does.