Science fiction, cultural myths, and the doubtful future of space flight

It appears we’re in the midst of a mini-explosion of reflection about the status of the science fictional dreams that, according to some observers and thinkers, fueled our 20th-century race into space. Basically, the space program in its original conception or incarnation — which in addition to its obvious nature as a geopolitically motivated Cold War phenomenon was truly a vision-driven effort to explore beyond our own planet and establish a future for us among the stars — is dead or dying. Commercial spaceflight a la Richard Branson may indeed have a booming future, but this is a far cry from what we originally, collectively envisioned. At the same time, and in a most interesting development, NASA is attempting to address the lack-of-vision problem directly by returning to its philosophical roots in visionary science fiction and forging a relationship with modern SF writers (see below).

Here’s a sampling from the sprawling conversation. The first two items were published just today. The third came out a week ago. The fourth is from 2009. The fifth mentions several major space flight-related projects launching even now. I close with some reflection from Theodore Roszak on the dubious advisability of seeking the stars at all when the contemporary earthbound cultural landscape is a “desert” of soul-dead corporate-industrial consumerism.

From Discovery News: “Is Human Spaceflight Worth It?” (8/31/11)

Today’s common thought about science and exploration demands positive results and it demands them now. With that attitude, it’s little wonder that many areas of science are finding themselves either mocked by politicians woefully ignorant of their work and out to score cheap political points, or de-funded to the point of nearly shutting down. Human spaceflight, particularly in the U.S., is unfortunately one of the scientific programs that face a very grim immediate future. With the shuttles retired, Soyuz malfunctioning, and the International Space Station (ISS) facing the very real risk of being abandoned in just a few months, we could be witnessing a brutal and completely undeserved self-inflicted blow to a program that put humans on the surface of another world. As lawmakers and bean counters decry sending humans to space as a waste of time and money, slashing budget after budget for the task, they’re in effect denying us the benefits that come from exploring the vast unknown realms beyond our planet for the sake of short term gain and childish partisan bickering … When a single bailout package to banks, that begged for government handouts after their elaborate financial schemes failed, can fund another Apollo project ten times over or fully pay for every NASA program for decades, it’s pretty obvious that we’re not dealing with a shortage of cash. We’re dealing with an inadequate vision and skewed priorities.

Next, from The Archdruid Report: “The Future That Wasn’t” (8/31/11)

Just as the young engineers and military officers of 1910 had all grown up reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as America stumbled into its age of global empire after the Second World War, a very large number of its young men (and a much smaller but still significant fraction of its young women) had grown up daydreaming of rockets to Mars and adventures with the Space Patrol … Before long a new US president was announcing a massively funded plroject to put men on the moon, the first rockets were blasting off from Cape Canaveral, and a nation already intrigued by the notion of outer space, and alternately amused and intrigued by the space-centered folk mythology of the UFO phenomenon, signed on to the opening stages of the grand future history already sketched out for them by decades of pulp science fiction. For the next decade and a half or so, fantasies of a future among the stars shaped the decisions of politicians and the public alike. By the time the Apollo program was well underway, staff at NASA was already sketching out the next generation of manned interplanetary spacecraft that would follow the Moon landing and cutting blueprints for the probes that would begin the exploration of the solar system. That’s when things started to run off the rails that seemingly led to the stars, because the solar system revealed by those probes turned out to have very little in common with the “New Worlds for Man” that the fantasies required … The intersection of imperial extravagance, technological triumphalism, and anti-Communist panic that flung billions of dollars into a quest to put men on the Moon made it possible, for a little while, for a minority of visionaries with a dream about the future to think that their dream was about to become reality. The dream unraveled, though, when the rest of the universe failed to follow the script, and a great many of the visionaries found themselves sitting in the dust wondering what happened.

Next, from The Guardian: “Nasa hopes novel mission will take science fiction to new frontiers” (8/25/11)

Time travel and warp drives may, alas, be out of the picture in a new partnership between Nasa and Tor/Forge Books, which will see the science fiction publisher’s authors teaming up with the space agency to release a range of “scientifically accurate and entertaining” novels. Authors will be paired with scientists and engineers from Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center at a two-day workshop in November, where the as-yet-unnamed writers will have access to Nasa data, facilities and experts, and will learn more about space exploration. Nasa and the publisher will then bring out a series of science-based novels – the “Nasa inspired works of fiction” line – which will be based on “concepts pertinent to current and future agency missions and operations”. “The space shuttle program may have ended, but the dream goes on!” said Tor. “The concept is to not only create scientifically accurate and exciting science fiction novels, but also to promote an interest in science awareness in general.”

Next, from The New York Times, “One Giant Leap to Nowhere” by Tom Wolfe (7/8/09)

Why, putting a man on the Moon was just the beginning, the prelude, the prologue! The Moon was nothing but a little satellite of Earth. The great adventure was going to be the exploration of the planets … Mars first, then Venus, then Pluto. Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus? NASA would figure out their slots in the schedule in due course. In any case, we Americans wouldn’t stop until we had explored the entire solar system. And after that … the galaxies beyond … [But] the American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean — O.K. if I add “godlike”? — quest in the history of the world, died in infancy at 10:56 p.m. New York time on July 20, 1969, the moment the foot of Apollo 11’s Commander Armstrong touched the surface of the Moon. It was no ordinary dead-and-be-done-with-it death. It was full-blown purgatory, purgatory being the holding pen for recently deceased but still restless souls awaiting judgment by a Higher Authority … How could such a thing happen? In hindsight, the answer is obvious. NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers … July 20, 1969, was the moment NASA needed, more than anything else in this world, the Word[i.e., the power to communicate an inspiring, mythic vision]. But that was something NASA’s engineers had no specifications for. At this moment, that remains the only solution to recovering NASA’s true destiny, which is, of course, to build that bridge to the stars.

And finally, here two caveats/complements to cast all of the above in a different or wider context:

First, in their “Fall Preview 2011” the website io9 has offered a rundown of “21 Scientific Research Projects Starting This Fall That Could Change the World.” They’ve grouped the projects into several categories, including medicine, education, technology and biotechnology, earth and environmental sciences — and space exporation. The latter section includes links to stories about China launching its own space station, Russia funding a project called the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, and exico launching its own space program. This leads one to wonder: Is the American sense that space flight as a serious endeavor is a sad and dead myth merely a quirk of collective national psychology, influenced perhaps by the economic attitude decried in the Discovery News op-ed above?

Second, Theodore Roszak, the philosopher, novelist, and culture critic whom I’ve cited previously here at The Teeming Brain as one of my cherished and formative philosophical influences (and who died just last month), commented a couple of times on the psychological and spiritual side of our forays into space, and on the attitudes that have fostered and accompanied them. In his classic Where the Wasteland Ends, published in 1972, just three years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he discussed “the astronautical image of man” and criticized what he viewed as its inherently dehumanizing and anti-life aspects:

What is there left of the human being in our militarized space programs but a small knot of neural complexity not yet simulable by electronic means, obediently serving the great technical project at hand by integrating itself totally with the apparatus surrounding it? In this form — cushioned and isolated within a prefabricated, homeostatic life space and disciplined to the demands of the mechanisms which sustain it — the astronaut perfects the artificial environment. Here is a human being who may travel anywhere and say, “I am not part of this place or that. I am autonomous. I make my own world after my own image.” He is packaged for export anywhere in the universe. But ultimately all places become the same gleaming, antiseptic, electronic, man-made place, endlessly reproduced … These are momentous developments. The astronautical image of man — and it is nothing but the quintessence of urban-industrial society’s pursuit of the wholly controlled, wholly artificial environment — amounts to a spiritual revolution. This is man as he has never lived before; it draws a line through human history that almost assumes the dimensions of an evolutionary turning point.

Seven years later, in Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society (1979), Roszsak commented further on the guiding philosophical-spiritual vision behind the space program. He mentioned that he had a friend, “a Trappist monk, now living in New Guinea, with whom I have been corresponding for the past four or five years, exchanging views on the moral and spiritual turmoil of the modern world.” He quoted one of his friend’s letters: “Everyone is called to be a monk today; everyone undergoes a desert experience, like it or not. The call is general. The Western world is undergoing a deep spiritual experience, and, so far, not doing too well … If anything is needed at this hour, it is men who know their way around in the desert, men who can understand what is going on there, can interpret it, manage with it. To be a monk in this time, then, is really to be the man of the hour. No man in the Church is more necessary, more useful. The desert is the monk’s world, and today the world is a desert.”

Roszak used these thoughts as a springboard to reflect on, and reject, the science fictional image of ourselves as star voyagers that was still alive, although terminally ill, in 1979:

In an era that has sent astronauts to scale the mountains of the moon, it is tempting to entertain Promethean images of ourselves, to see ourselves as space pioneers and star voyagers. But my letters from far-off New Guinea suggest another image that may be suited to our condition — something humbler, more somber, yet no less heroic: that of the first desert fathers making their way beyond the walls of a failing empire, searching for their salvation in the trackless waste. “Called to be monks…” Or let us say, we are called to ponder the example of the monks, as we encounter our “desert experience” — losing the world to find ourselves, putting off the assigned identities of our culture in order to gain our personhood.

In other words, “desert times,” times of psychological and cultural desperation and upheaval on a mass scale — like the ones Roszak was living through in the 1970s and the ones we’re living through today — call into question the self-images and guiding telos, the deeply imagined future destiny and endpoint, by which we live. And for Roszak, in such times the image of the star voyager is categorically trumped for truly human and humane purposes by to the image of the desert monk who knows how to navigate the wilderness. This recalls Morris Berman’s call in The Twilight of American Culture for a voluntary and informal class of “new monks” who will dedicate themselves to the task of truly seeing the soul-dead landscape of globalized corporate consumerism for what it is, and who will preserve things of true value during the new dark age.

I welcome anybody’s thoughts on any of this. Me, I’m torn between both the practical realities and the resonant mythic-poetic visions existing on all sides of the conversation.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 1, 2011, in Science & Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    I’ve often noticed we read similar authors and are interested in similar subjects. So, it’s not surprising that I resonate with your response here. I’m also torn as you explain.

    There was several parts to the original vision of space travel. A large part of it was just pure adolescent fantasy which I suppose was a bubble bound to burst, although I wouldn’t yet dismiss the possibility of discovering non-earth life somewhere out there. More importantly, the original vision was split between the age-old vision of imperial conquest (we no longer could move Westward and so we decided to go upward) and the related age-old vision of exploration and discovery, the latter still being worthy and the former not so much.

    It must be admitted that humans are a restless species. Within this restless species, Westerners are partciularly restless and Americans are probably the most restless of them all. I don’t know that such restlessness is a good thing, but it is our lot in life. This connects to my most recent post about the liberal impulse which I see as fundamentally a human impulse.

    Looking past the fantasies, humans will always do what humans will do… until something stops humans from continuing to do so. Fantasies can help fuel that human impulse and fear can thwart it to an extent, but the human impulse always wins out in the end. We will go on exploring space because we can and because it’s too tempting not to do. New fantasies will form. Humans are good at creating new fantasies. Give it time.

    Humanity has gone through many “desert times” and yet humanity keeps on going. Civilizations keep on arising and the civilization project keeps on growing. Humans keep on exploring and seeking, keep on building ‘great’ things and keep on dreaming ‘great’ dreams. From the perspective of rational analysis, none of it makes any sense and Roszak might be right. But the dreamers and doers of the world never pay any attention to people like Roszak.

    It reminds me of the research on pessimists and optimists. Pessimists are more realistic in accurately assessing reality as it is, i.e., the present situation. Optimists are absolutely clueless in this regard, but optimists in their present cluelesseness are therefore more likely to change the present situation. Pessimists are right and they are stuck. Optimists, in not clearly seeing the present, are more clearly see the future.

    I’m a pessimist in many ways and so I sympathize with Roszak, but I also am a liberal with that liberal impulse that causes me to get excited about new and wondrous things such as space travel. I may be torn, but I ultimately put my faith in the liberal impulse. My faith isn’t blind. Rather, my faith is resigned to humans being humans. Doubting human nature seems pointless, even when human nature is confronted by its own apparent limits.

  2. Benjamin David Steele

    I was thinking that I didn’t directly respond to the specific issue at hand. I was being more philosophical in my speaking generally. But what about the specific issue of funding space exploration and even more specifically in terms of America and Americans?

    Many have argued that Americans are an optimistic people. That probably is true in certain ways. However, at the moment, Americans aren’t collectively feeling optimistic. The gloomy mood of our national psyche gives us the opportunity to rethink past fantasies and see them with a bit more clarity than would be possible during good times. Still, I don’t think this is an issue that will be resolved by rationality. Humans, generally speaking, are more non-rational than rational.

    I’m not sure about the telos of our civilization. Such things don’t change easily. A telos only changes when it (along with the civilization it guided) goes over a cliff and smashes to pieces. As dark as it might seem at present, we aren’t near enough to such a catastrophic death of our telos.

    The twentieth century has seen massive changes. In such a changing world, the liberal impulse of optimism is exagerated and in response so is the conservative impulse of pessimism. As a society, we are a moody bunch, jumping back and forth between vast optimistic visions of advancement and vast pessimistic visions of annihalation. We were in the mid 20th century in an upswing and now we feel we are in a downswing, but a new upswing will come along. It all goes in cycles. According to generations theory (Fourth Turning, Strauss & Howe), generational cycles last about 80 years and we are entering a new phase that begins the cycle again.

    There were plenty of doomsayers in the early 20th century. They had good reasons for being pessimistic and they had rational criticisms to justify their attitude. It was a time following Reconstruction with all of the problems that entailed. Traditional agrarian lifestyles and communities were systematically being undermined, and early city life was gruesome in many ways. There was a world war, a horrendous depression, and then another world war. Plus, there was communist paranoia. Even so, out of that seemingly dark era, a new liberal era was born. We collectively built an interstate highway system, funded technological development including computers and the early internet, sent an entire generation to college, grew a middle class and built suburbia to house them, won various civil rights victories, and of course we sent men into space.

    The pessimistic mood we feel right now doesn’t even compare to the early 20th century. On the other hand, they had great fantasies to believe in and they were still naive enough to believe in them. But aren’t we humans always naive? We will find new fantasies to be naive about.

    To be realistic, nothing is going to change at the moment. We have an administration and a generation of politicians that lacks vision. We will have to wait and see what the new generation will eventually do, but for now we are as a nation focused on more down-to-earth matters. Funding isn’t in the near future going to increase for space exploration.

    Eventually, though, the collective mood will change. When present problems subside, people will go back to fantasizing and being inspired by the telos of our civilization. I don’t see any reason why this won’t happen.

  3. “Certainly the lives of the astronauts bore all the signs of a deepening sense of guilt. The relapse into alcoholism, silence and pseudo-mysticism, and the mental breakdowns, suggested profound anxieties about the moral and biological rightness of space exploration.”
    -J. G. Ballard, “News from the Sun”

    “An awareness that man had committed an evolutionary crime by travelling into space, that he was tampering with the elements of his own consciousness.”
    -J. G. Ballard, “Memories of the Space Age”

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