Distal Muse Archives


by Mark W. Tiedemann

     Sometimes it seems like we'll never get off this rock.
     We've lost another shuttle.  Seven astronauts, gone, added to the registry of national myth.  It hurts more than I can say.
     What went wrong?  We may never know.  Certainly there will be conspiracy theorists who will insist it was terrorism, even though the likelihood of that is so infinitesimally UNlikely as to be laughable.
     Something broke.  That's all we'll probably ever know for sure.  One of the thousands of parts on the damn thing gave out, caved in, failed--and BAM.  Another tragedy.
     As dangerous projects go, the space program--our space program--has been running on borrowed joss for a long time.  As tragic as any loss may be, our casualties from more than four decades have been ridiculously small.  Most of that good fortune has nothing to do with "fortune" good or otherwise, but on the fact that NASA has worked and continues to work with people of the highest ability, competence, and dedication.  They are good at what they do.  The fact that they have to do it with less and less as each year goes by only underscores their talent.
     I'm deliriously glad Fritz Mondale didn't get elected to the senate now.  When Challenger blew up, he made some of those most egregiously disparaging remarks about the space program.  He and William Proxmire are kindred souls when it comes to such things.  I don't think I could abide him now, even at the cost of having another Republican in congress.
     A lot of things go through the mind on a day like this.  The loss of life foremost.  Seven people of a calibre and ability we have too few to lose, gone at the homestretch after an adventure those of us who dream of such things may only continue to dream about.
     But then, bidden or not, the hard part emerges, the cold element, the practical aspect of the cynic.  They'll have build a new shuttle now.  If they don't, then we'll all know that this generation's intention to conquer space is over.
     I grew up thinking we'd be colonizing near space by now.  We should have had space stations years ago and a manned mission to Mars ought to have already brought back the news that it would be worthwhile to send a permanent base--like the one we have on the moon (or should have), only better.  None of this was impossible.  Expensive, yes.  Apollo was going on during the VietNam War--one most casualty of our lunacy in Cold War politics.  When the economy went in the trash can after the war was ended, nobody wanted to spend money on rockets and astronauts.  It looked wasteful.
     Something I've come to realize, though, about political money--in the late Seventies the groups who campaigned against the space program argued (with hard to ignore or dismiss ethical grounding) that all those billions would be better spent on programs for the poor, the hungry, the sick.  But it never works that way.  The so-called "peace dividend" at the end of the Cold War didn't manifest.  Because--and this is the way it works at all levels of government spending--money earmarked for one project does not get shunted to another one when the first project is terminated.  It simply disappears.  The fourteen billion NASA spends annually would never appear in the budget of Head Start or Medicare.  It would vanish, as if it had never existed.  This fact is probably connected to deficit spending and debt margin economics.  Right now it doesn't matter, only the fact that it's true.  We hamstring our government agencies by requiring them to spend every dime annually that gets budgeted to them, because if they don't--if they come in under budget--we take that "extra" money away from them.  We punish them for efficiency.  Comes a year when they could use that extra funding, they have to fight to get it back.
     So we get frantic when NASA loses the budget war.  They lost 40% of their allotment in the '90s.  Because we all know, we who care about such things, they'll never get it back.
     Losing the Columbia means another round of "do we really need to risk human lives in this silliness" from the Luddites.
     And the only answer I could give them is Yes.  Because we risk human lives in all sillinesses that people think important.  Because risking their lives--lives they choose to risk--to fulfill a dream is probably the only virtuous use of national risk.
     Aside from the romance of space and all the science fictional vistas that go with it, there is a fundamental issue of great importance that no one ever talks about.  Following a dream, yes, especially one so vast and ennobling, is of paramount importance.  Such things make us more than we are, even those of us who aren't paying any attention.  They make being human mean something more than merely vertebrates with overdeveloped cerebral function.  The science is vital, yes, learning new things so that we can become new with the knowledge, yes, important.
     But beneath all that is something more compelling.
     We need to get off this rock.
     Not all of us, that's impossible.  The skiffy vision of alleviating population pressure via offworld colonies is one of the more ridiculous dreams of our art.  We make more people every day than we could ever lift off the surface and send elsewhere.  Besides, nature--human or otherwise--will take care of that problem in time.
     No, we need to get a colony off this rock to isolate it from the insanity generated by those population pressures.  Too few of  us realize how fragile this veneer of technology and culture is that we've built.  It blinds us to the fact that most of the world is still stuck in eighteenth or nineteenth--sometimes 18th or 19th B.C.E.--century attitudes, superstitions, and desperate struggles for resource that will tear down everything we've achieved if it can, all in the name of--well, pick your slogan.  It all amounts to the same thing.  There are only two ways to prevent it.  Solve the inequities that drive such fanaticism or get the best of what we've built somewhere else, somewhere out of reach.
     I doubt we're going to do the former.
     When given half a chance, human beings will more often than not overcome limitations, expand their compassion, and try to do better.  The reality of life on our planet is that most people never get any chance.
     Some may argue that we have no right to spread ourselves elsewhere, that colonization is de facto immoral.  Given the legacy of such efforts, you could make a solid argument along those lines.  When it comes to displacing indigenous populations, such an argument is unassailable--it's wrong, period.  But we're not talking about displacing anybody.  Mars is uninhabited and, barring that, open space wherein could be built artificial colonies is certainly there for the taking.  The many moons strewn throughout our solar system, the asteroid belt--we've found no evidence of intelligent life anywhere else in this solar system.  What those who would tell us not to go are talking about is a more nihilistic, self-loathing argument--that homo sapiens doesn't deserve to survive.
     Those folks are the ones who bitch about the glass being half-empty all the time.  The half-full side has more going for it, I think.  I won't even bother to detail all that, because those who would still argue with me already have their minds made up.
     At bottom, though, it is a matter of longterm cultural survival that we move off the Earth.  It might not work, but we have to try.
     Pipe dream?
     It's all a matter of money.  We have the dreamers who can build the dream.
     NASA's current budget is roughly fourteen billion a year.  By comparison, Russia's is three hundred million, and they're already talking about the possibility of stepping in during the inevitable grounding of the remaining shuttles.  They're even talking about reviving their own shuttle program--certainly with some of our money to help.  But it seems unlikely.  Three hundred million doesn't buy as much in Russia as it does here.  And I can't see this administration, hell bent on increasing profit margins for the top two percent of the private sector, allocating more than the price of a few pocket calculators to Baikonur.
     Ten percent of the projected tax cut Bush is talking about, funneled directly into NASA, would put us on Mars in ten years.  Solidly on Mars.
     The private sector?  I like the idea of eventually opening space to private enterprise, but I rather doubt venture capitalists will queue up in sufficient numbers to get a decent program off the ground.  And once they realize that robots could do what they want to do as efficiently as people, that'll be the death of manned spaceflight in the private sector.  For better or worse, they're bottom-liners, and you can't bank on enough of them funding dreams for the sake of dreams.
     So we're looking at the Chinese getting into the manned space business.  Heinlein said it decades ago that humans will go to space, the only question is which language they'll speak.  At the time he was talking about the Russians.  Now it may be the Chinese.
     But I'm not bringing that up out of some nationalist pride or patriotic concerns.  I'm bringing it up to point out that we need to all go, because we're all part of the human race.  Great for the Chinese!  Sad for Russia, that it has but a fingernail grasp on its own program.
     Worry about us.  Especially now.  Americans have become, as a nation, so damned risk averse since the Sixties that these seven lives will as likely see the end of the dream as any kind of inspiration to do better with it.  We're litigious, selfish, and often petty.  Most people are, but we Americans have the resources to express it all so much better than anyone else.
     Along with that, though, we are also generous, ambitious, and imaginative.  It's no accident that science fiction came to fruition as a distinctive art form here.  It's no accident that we're the ones who got people to the moon.  The better angels of our nature drive us to be more than we are, to break the bonds that tie us to the small and stifled.  We have to give them a chance, though, and we can't let the fear of death stop us--because if we do, we also stop the chance of success.
     Bush is getting set to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to war over oil.  According to polls, we hate the idea, but are more and more willing to support his program.  Of course, most of the casualties will be anonymous to most of us--soldiers, such and such a unit, maybe a name.  We'll mourn.  And fight more.
     These seven astronauts are fast becoming our next-door neighbors.  We're learning more and more about them as individuals, which elevates their deaths to the personal in a way war casualties almost never achieve.  It tends to make their deaths--the astronauts--less acceptable.  We won't want to go through that again.
     Clearly, no death is acceptable.  But you have to wonder why we'd be willing to risk more through war than through pursuit of a dream.
     If given a choice, I'd put the money into going to Mars.  Or wherever.  Instead of going to Iraq.  The benefits of Mars are greater in the long run and the costs, frankly, a hell of a lot less.  Going to Mars will enrich our minds and souls.  Going to Iraq will just give us a few more years of SUVs.
     When soldiers die in the line of duty, we demand that their lives not be lost in vain, so we try to build a better military.  Let's carry the same impulse to this.  Let these astronauts not have died in vain--let's build a better space program and embrace a better dream.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann