Friday, February 9, 2018


There's something odd to me about the nostalgia some older people feel for the NASA space program of the 60s and 70s. It feels kind of like talking to a fan of a sports team you don't follow. Everybody knows sports are just for fun, yet some of us, myself included, seem to take it very seriously even so. Ted Cruz is one of the most conservative politicians in existence. Got a problem? The government need not apply. Yet NASA appears to have a special hold on his heart. Then there's David French, a man who viciously opposed Donald Trump and seriously explored an independent run for President after Trump won the primary, yet here he is parroting, if not Trump's slogan (titles for articles like this are often written by editors not authors), then at least Trump's grandiose nationalistic sentiments over the rocket launch the other day. Though Falcon Heavy is a SpaceX rocket, it's heavily subsidized as French notes. I wonder if he would feel the same way or wax so philosophical if it was another country.

One of my very favorite C.S. Lewis quotes happens to be about the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Lewis was a British patriot and had no irrational sentiments to color his opinion on the matter, though he most certainly would have understood and heartily approved of such sentiments insofar as they applied to Britain. But without a dog in the fight, Lewis I think pinpointed the real reason why space travel has not worked out the way all the old classic science fiction authors intended. Lewis himself wrote a science fiction trilogy, creating luscious alien biomes on both Mars and Venus complete with several sentient species, an idea becoming increasingly absurd today. Lewis died in 1963, in fact on the same day as did JFK who started the space program, and six years before the first moon landing. An actual landing on Mars, manned or not, was still a fantastic proposition. Yet somehow Lewis manages, as he somehow always did, to be quite prescient on the matter.

In a little known essay called "The Seeing Eye", Lewis deals with the question of space travel, particularly the prospect of finding life, or perhaps as he was told the Soviets said, not finding God. The prospect of intelligent life on other planets vexes a particular sort of Christian, the kind Lewis wasn't. His main concern about finding intelligent life on other planets was the possibility that the fallen human race would corrupt it. The book Perelandra, the second in his space trilogy, imagines the creation of life on Venus by God. After creation, the whole Garden of Eden scenario plays out, but this time God sends a Christian from Earth to counter the influence of Venus' equivalent of the snake in order to prevent the Fall from taking place there as it did on Earth. In Out of the Silent Planet, Earth is the Silent Planet and Mars had watched as Earth had fallen dark and under the influence of the devil. Lewis thought the best sci-fi used a potential future to cast light and lessons on the present. He did not think much of epic colonization stories portraying humanity conquering the stars. He spent several hours a day answering letters from regular people, usually fans of his fiction, and he worried more than anything else that people's faith would be shaken by space exploration, being quite familiar with all the atheist attempts to do so. "The Seeing Eye" was his response to all of that. My favorite quote is perhaps not the most important part, nor is it even in the main argument, but I love it both for its British humor and its prescience:

 "Nor am I much concerned about the 'space race' between America and Russia. The more money, time, skill and zeal they both spend on that rivalry, the less, we may hope they will have to spend on armaments. Great powers might be more usefully, but are seldom less dangerously, employed than in fabricating costly objects and flinging them, as you might say, overboard. Good luck to it! It is an excellent way of letting off steam."

The author of a fantastical tale of alien life and exra-terrestrial adventures understood real space exploration as no more than an international pissing contest. I have always wondered if he would have taken the same line had Britain been a competitor in the space race. Perhaps the naval metaphor is his way of pointing to the period of British dominance in exploration that actually mattered.

French doesn't even argue that space exploration has practical benefits. The whole column is existential nostalgia for a time when, don't you know, Americans were united by a seemingly impossible project. Perhaps we would be more united today if our communal projects had more practical value and were not more examples of redistributing resources in ways that sound really great in speeches by blowhards but don't generate much in the way of wealth and the higher standards of living most people actually care about. French argues in his essay that we lost interest in space because we lost interest in doing things as a nation, but that seems to be missing a rather large point. Could it be that space isn't as hospitable or interesting as all the classic science fiction authors imagined? We came, we saw, we conquered...nothing. And now nobody cares anymore.

Even science fiction is beginning to recognize this. Science fiction has changed from the Star Trek version where "M-class", that is earth-like, planets are myriad, and every one of them seems to have an intelligent species or two. The new Battlestar Galactica would be a case in point. The humans are chased off their home planets by enemy robots and spend the rest of the first season, and much of the rest of the series, desperately trying to find food and water to stay alive and a survivable planet where they can start over. I recently finished the first season of the new hit show "The Expanse" which presents space even more starkly and, it must be said, realistically. Mars is colonized by ordinary humans who went there primarily because they believe Earth had become a lost cause. Now the Martians are engaged in a tedious centuries long project of terraforming the planet to make it livable. A far cry from Lewis' lush vision of Mars. Even more starkly presented are the denizens of the asteroid belt, or "belters". Thanks to our actual experience in space, we now know that even living in zero gravity for months or years has serious deleterious health effects on the human body. "The Expanse" portrays belters as born in low or zero-G and living most of their lives there. They have serious health problems including severe muscular atrophy and skeletal deformations. In one scene, a belter suspected of being a terrorist is tortured by simply suspending him by the armpits on a set of hooks on Earth, the mere exposure to Earth's gravity causing him extensive pain. He later commits suicide by intentionally removing his protection from g-forces during a rocket launch. But hey, let's go to space on purpose's a great way to get Americans to unite around a ridiculous mission?

It certainly seems to be true that Americans are less united now than we were during the space race. I suspect having a common enemy which posed a genuine threat may have had a bit more to do with the national psychology of that time than a communal science project. Nor do I think today's disunity is caused by or can be repaired by something like that. We've been there, done that, got the T-shirt and saw there was nothing to see.

Now that's whack.