20 July 2009

Moon Plus 40, and Counting

Men landed on the moon forty years ago today. The three members of the Apollo 11 mission are still alive to receive fresh honors, but a time may come soon when no man living will have walked on the lunar surface. This prospect distresses people who regard space exploration as a human species imperative. A friend of mine told me this weekend that he regarded our failure to move out beyond the moon as a sign of national decline. If the U.S. can't summon the political will to return to the moon or move on to Mars, he said, that would show that we're finished as a nation. He went so far as to say that it would prove the United States to be a failed experiment in democracy, though he didn't go further to say that the failure would discredit democracy itself.

Nevertheless, it made me wonder whether democracy was a factor in the seemingly stagnant state of space exploration. Many look back nostalgically on John F. Kennedy's 1961 declaration that Americans would reach the moon within a decade, and on the efforts of Lyndon Johnson to fulfill that vow. The 1960s were a time when many Americans felt their nation capable of anything it wanted to do, and it seems that no one saw the moon program in zero-sum terms relative to other national priorities, as many do now. Once the eagle had landed, it became common to ask what else we could do "if we can put a man on the moon." Increasingly, people appeared to prefer that we meet the more mundane needs of fellow humans before resuming what had come to look like a national vanity project. This was partly a result of the diminished expectations of the 1970s. It had been part of the fantasy of Great Society America that we could explore space and conquer poverty -- and win the war in Vietnam. By the end of the Apollo program, a sense of scarcity imposed a choice of priorities, and most Americans opted for social programs, on one hand, or tax relief, on the other.

Advocates of space exploration presumably see this as a failure of democracy. That depends on whether you see democracy as a means to an end or an end in itself. The utilitarian view regards democracy as one of several possible means of advancing the species, but regards the advance of the species as an imperative that overrides any argument for democracy as an end in itself. But at least some believers in democracy would insist that it is an end in itself in the sense that the people should define what their interests are. If the people decide that space exploration is a low priority, from this perspective, then it is undemocratic for someone to insist otherwise. The dilemma is as old as democracy itself. If we believe that there is a Good that is true for everyone regardless of whether everyone affirms it, then democracy can't be the last word on what is good. From the time of Socrates forward, philosophers and others have argued that those who know the Good have some kind of right to rule the rest of us. That idea can take us pretty far from democracy. A middle stance would take the position that democracy requires all participants to strive toward the Good, however defined, rather than merely pursue their own selfish or tribal ends. This position, which is where I believe my pessimistic friend comes from, makes a distinction between democracy and mere "freedom" in the decadent American sense of the word. Some people may take this view further and insist that democracy is always the best way to determine the Good and get people together to achieve it. An American failure, from this perspective, should it happen, would not discredit democracy itself, but only the latter-day American approach to it.

What all this has to do with space exploration remains to be determined. We clearly have people who think that it is a species imperative and not just an American national interest. They clearly think that a persuasive argument can be made to get public opinion behind new exploration, but they don't see or hear others making it. The arguments against space exploration, I imagine, remain what they've been since the Seventies. There are questions of priorities and questions of cost. There doesn't seem to be a debate because no one in the political class seems willing to make a strong case in Kennedy style for space exploration. That doesn't stop anyone else, however. If people believe that space exploration is essential to the human future, than today's anniversary is as good a time as any to get a movement started. Their sense of necessity should be reflected in the urgency and volume with which they make their case. So let's see what happens.

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