Icarus and Apollo

Originally published in TIA Daily.

The space shuttle Endeavor just landed for the last time last night in Florida, marking the end of the second to last manned space flight to be undertaken by the United States for the foreseeable future.

In a recent op-ed, three legends of the Apollo space program mourned the end of the manned program 50 years after it began. I understand its personal meaning to these men, and I have to say that there is something valid in their pessimistic assessment. I am all in favor of cutting the federal budget, but to end manned space flight so that we can instead lose $14 billion bailing out the United Auto Workers says a lot about our priorities. As Ayn Rand said about the moon landing (somewhat pessimistically), “If the United States is to commit suicide, let it not be for the sake and support of the worst human elements, the parasites-on-principle…. The American flag on the moon…will, at least, be a worthy monument to what had once been a great country.”

And yet the value of the manned space program is mostly symbolic. The original space program, back in the 1960s, had a quasi-practical purpose. In keeping with Cold War rules, it was the peaceful manifestation of an underlying race between America and Russia over who could build the best missiles and the highest high technology. It was an indirect contest of military capabilities. It also served an important propaganda purpose. There is nothing more futuristic than space exploration, so the “space race” was a contest over who owned the future. The American flag planted on the moon was the answer.

In today’s context, however, manned spaceflight has little justification. We have mastered the technology of sending satellites into orbit for purposes such as communications and global positioning, and that is most of the value we have to gain from the exploitation of space. Other than the potential for sub-orbital “space tourism,” there is no foreseeable commercial use for manned space flight. The lift capacity to launch anything into orbit (and bring it back) is too expensive, and there is nothing of sufficient value to go there for. The Earth itself is underdeveloped; we have barely begun to tap the reserves of energy and minerals here. So why would we need to go to the moon or Mars? A recent article expressed this point succinctly.

It turned out that sending people into space provided no benefit compared to sending machines, and sending the machines is far cheaper….

Look at it this way: Long before we learned how to write or farm, human beings populated all of the Earth’s continents except Antarctica, which is still the only continent without cities, farms, or nations.

Why haven’t we colonized the bottom of the world? The answer seems so obvious that the question sounds ridiculous. Yet compared to space, Antarctica is a paradise.

Manned spaceflight does not exist to serve a practical purpose but rather to fulfill men’s science fiction dreams.

That is not to underestimate the symbolic and spiritual meaning of the achievements of the space program. Quoting Ayn Rand again, “it is not of enormous importance to most people that man lands on the moon, but that man can do it, is.” The space program, and particularly the moon landing, remains as an epochal demonstration of the human potential for achievement.

Throughout history, celestial bodies were regarded as pure and impossibly far away. The stars were a symbol of the unattainable ideal. By landing on the moon, we showed that we had attained it.

Since the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, mankind has slowly been acquiring all of the capabilities we once attributed to our gods. We are increasingly invulnerable to disease and death; science has given us a comprehensive knowledge of the deepest inner workings of the universe; and oh yes, we can fly. The heavens, in particular, were always conceived of as the realm of the gods. Now it is our realm, too. We have eaten of the tree of knowledge and become as gods.

Perhaps this is what makes people apprehensive about the end of manned spaceflight and makes them see it as a sign of decline, particularly in this era of the Great Recession. It is not that we need manned spaceflight. It is that we are concerned that we are losing our sense of man’s limitless possibilities.

But a renewed manned space program will not solve that. After all, ten years after the moon landing, we still found ourselves stuck in Jimmy Carter’s malaise. Restoring our sense of man’s possibilities is more a matter of what we do here on Earth than it is about sending men into space.

So do not mourn too much the passing of America’s manned space program. If its purpose was mostly symbolic, then it has served its purpose brilliantly. The ancient myth of Icarus—the idea that man would always fall short of the highest and best—has been replaced by the reality of Apollo.

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