Monday, July 20, 2009

Rediscovering the Final Frontier

One imagines Gene Roddenberry, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov to be rolling over in their graves at the current state of affairs. Roddenberry emblazoned on our minds the idea of space as our final frontier; that we had it in us as humans to conquer our vast differences in a common effort to expand outward beyond our own small atmosphere in order to maintain ourselves as a species. Heinlein imagined a future wherein space travel and interplanetary colonization were not only possible, but commonplace. Asimov contemplated a future where we had expanded as a species to every corner of the galaxy, finding only ourselves as sentient beings, guardians of our own survival by means of our ability to expand.

The 40th Anniversary of the first moon landing has brought about memories amongst us of those longings to move ever outward from within, and with them, questioning about why, exactly, we find ourselves moving ever inward.

Megan McArdle is nostalgic:
Four years before I was born, man walked on the moon for the first time, the most magnificent single feat our little tribe of East African Plains Apes has ever managed. Now we don't even do that. What happened to the dream? Government mismanagement, yes, but something more than that, too, some failure of imagination and will.
Charles Krauthammer does a better job of pinpointing what seems to have happened:

Why do it? It's not for practicality. We didn't go to the moon to spin off cooling suits and freeze-dried fruit. Any technological return is a bonus, not a reason. We go for the wonder and glory of it. Or, to put it less grandly, for its immense possibilities. We choose to do such things, said JFK, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." And when you do such magnificently hard things -- send sailing a Ferdinand Magellan or a Neil Armstrong -- you open new human possibility in ways utterly unpredictable.

The greatest example? Who could have predicted that the moon voyages would create the most potent impetus to -- and symbol of -- environmental consciousness here on Earth: Earthrise, the now iconic Blue Planet photograph brought back by Apollo 8?

Ironically, that new consciousness about the uniqueness and fragility of Earth focused contemporary imagination away from space and back to Earth. We are now deep into that hyper-terrestrial phase, the age of iPod and Facebook, of social networking and eco-consciousness.

And it seems to me that it's the issue of our depth of commitment to eco-consciousness that has played a role in derailing our space interests. As we hurdle forward with ever more stringent regulation over our emissions, without a full understanding of their effects, we ignore the fact that no matter how much we limit our consumption of this planet's resources, we will eventually run out of everything. As I attended grade-school, I always had this in mind. I was deluged by stories of the necessity of recycling in the Weekly Reader and those were only reinforced in my afternoon cartoons as Captain Planet burst onto the scene as a new superhero. To my mind, it was our responsibility to preserve the planet until such time as we could find ourselves hurtling through that great black void to some as yet undiscovered new home. It always seemed to me, as Heinlein put it, that "The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."

But as Heinlein rolls, Conor Friedersdorf sums up what seems to be the current attitude:
But look. Earth is going to be hit by another extinction level asteroid long before the sun is going to burn up. An obligation to preserve the only meaningful life that we know suggests that we spend money on scanning the sky for gargantuan rocks hurtling toward us, safeguarding humanity against pandemic diseases and stopping nuclear proliferation. I'd be thrilled to learn that we'll survive half as long as it takes the sun to burn up!

Has our eco-consciousness and environmentalism really become so pervasive that our attitude toward the progression of our species as a whole has become emasculated to the point of just being happy to be here? Is the attitude really that we're going to be obliterated at some point so we may as well enjoy it while it lasts?

NASA's budget is about $17.6 billion per year. This represents our commitment to exploring the cosmos and progressing the science necessary to preserve our species. In the meantime, we find ourselves at the brink of watching our government commit more than $31 trillion over the next 90 years to a cap and trade bill that intends only to limit how much we are able to progress the industrial and nuclear sciences that would propel our species into the stars and our future salvation, and to do it absurdly in the name of that self same preservation. That works out, by the way, to a cost to society as a whole of over $344 billion per year.

One can only wonder, if we were to reverse our current self-immolatic attitude of "preservation" through the denial of resources, to one of real preservation through progress, what the future might hold.

Perhaps we might begin again to work toward conquering our final frontier.

1 comment:

  1. It's a shame the government is restricting private endeavors at space exploration. That may be our only remaining hope. As we all know, government is arbitrary, fickle, and incompetent. A little profit margin goes a long way to improving an industry.
    One more reason Heinlein is rolling in his grave.