Monday, July 20, 2009

The Apollo 11 Moon landing: a hollow anniversary

It’s fully predictable that the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission would be cause for widespread celebration, especially in the U.S.A. The basic accomplishment – flying a rocket ship 238, 800 miles to let the first human to set foot on the Moon – still ranks as a fascinating milestone in human history, something to place on the list with the first visit to the North Pole or the running of the first four minute mile. But while in July 1969 just about everyone agreed with Neil Armstrong’s proud proclamation that he’d made “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” today we’re entitled to ask: Exactly what great leap was that? And what wonderful consequences for humanity followed?

It strikes me that the passage of time has revealed how hollow and unfulfilling the moon landing turned out to be. While media pundits and politicians wax eloquent about a great turning point, no one moves on to list any specifics. The sad fact is that the Apollo mission was predicated on Cold War competition with the U.S.S.R. and embodied some highly suspect underlying obsessions -- nationalism, militarism, technological triumphalism, and the goal of conquering nature. Along with the three astronauts, this was the ponderous cargo the space capsule carried on its journey. But once the basic entry in the record book had been written, the promise of manned space flight faded rapidly.

Yes, the Hubble and other orbiting telescopes, along with robot journeys to Mars and to distant parts of the solar system, have made valuable contributions to scientific knowledge and provided new images and perspectives for human imagination. And yes, the Space Shuttle and Space Station have logged in some noteworthy achievements. But the part of the story that involved sending living astronauts on missions of “exploration” and “conquest” to the Moon or beyond seems increasingly vain, costly and (given notable problems on Earth) unreasonable. Perhaps that is why political support for NASA dwindled when the Apollo program ended, why the agency’s funding has been steadily cut. Although not a topic for polite company, a silent question about space travel hovers in the strosphere: What good is it really?

In his recent NY Times essay, Tom Wolfe laments the fact that America never produced a philosopher to define a better understanding of space travel beyond its tawdry Cold War narrative. The only plausible candidate he mentions is ex-Nazi rocket scientist and U.S. space program guru, the late Wernher von Braun.

“The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

“It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.”

A bridge to the what? How appropriate on the occasion of the anniversary of Apollo landing to be offered a philosophy for space travel that is literally sheer lunacy – a grotesque intellectual moonbeam that envisions options for humanity in a disaster scenario millions of years in the future. It’s lucky we Earthlings don’t have any serious worries for the shorter term.

There’s a perfectly obvious reason why no respectable philosopher has stepped forward to chart a new vision of space as a destination for human aspirations. It’s a total vacuum out there.

- Langdon

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