Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Abyss Calls to Abyss

Thirty-six years ago today at 10:56 pm EDT, Neal Armstrong descended from the Apollo 11 lunar module and stepped onto the lunar surface. By merely walking on an extra-terrestrial body, the ancient scruples that had deified the heavens were definitively cast down. Armstrong's was the small, even mundane step crowning one of the most awesome human undertakings.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. (President Kennedy, May 25, 1961)

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (President Kennedy, September 12, 1962)

Is there any contrast so striking as the achievement of the lunar landing compared to NASA's present morass of clueless impotence?

Why is NASA so helpless? Further, why bother about space anyway?

These are good questions that only NASA administrators lack the presence of mind to avoid. In the latest New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, scrutinizes NASA and President Bush's Mars initiative. Zubrin makes a great pitch for manned missions to Mars. So great that he very nearly rekindles the excitement in a space skeptic like me.

Critique of NASA and The Plan

Zubrin takes to task the Aldridge Commission's endorsement of NASA's present listless state. He observes that historically NASA has operated in either of two "modes":

  1. the destination-driven Apollo Mode, and
  2. the production-driven Shuttle Mode.

In Apollo Mode, technology is devised to serve the mission, while in Shuttle Mode, the mission is devised to farm out money to constituencies, such as NASA labs and technology companies. Almost needless to say, Shuttle Mode is incredibly wasteful and directionless, blowing with the political breeze. The Apollo Mode was not only more successful in achievement, but also in developing technology.

Furthermore, Zubrin faults NASA's lack of technical expertise on top (causing the often-observed stark division and subsequent miscommunication between managers and engineers that results in disasters like Columbia) and he observes that the great success of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory comes from its directors as well as its managers being superb scientists or engineers.

Insofar as it gives NASA a definite direction, Zubrin has nothing for praise for President Bush's new space initiative to return us to the Moon and then to Mars. But he doesn't shy from levelling seering criticism at the initiative's wastefully slothful time-table and even more the knuckle-headed implementation plan cooked up by NASA's new Exploration Systems Missions Directorate (ESMD).

The time-table proposed by the President is so slow that current technology that could be adapted to the new mission will have fallen into years of disuse by the time it is needed. The schedule is so slow that it will vastly balloon the total cost of getting us to Mars. (A good thing if the goal is to buy votes, but a bad thing if your goal is Mars and the national interest.)

In a word, the problem with ESMD's plan is its extraordinary redundancy and reduplication of effort. Indicative is the third flaw that Zubrin notes:

[I]t fails to respond to the presidential directive. As currently constituted, the hardware used in Spirals 2 and 3 is used to support lunar missions only, with no regard for Mars requirements. But the president's policy directive clearly specified that a central purpose of the lunar program is to enable sustained human exploration of Mars. These orders were effectively ignored by the designers of the plan."

The Meaning of It All

All of these remarks on the implementation of the President's plan ignore the issue of why we should try to send men to Mars. Zubrin turns to this question in his final section.

[I]n the long run civilizations are built by ideas, not swords. The central idea at the core of Western civilization is that there is an inherent facility in the individual human mind to recognize right from wrong and truth from untruth. This idea is the source of our notions of conscience and science, terms which, not coincidentally, share a common root.

Both our radical fundamentalist and our totalitarian enemies deny these concepts. They deny the validity of the individual conscience, and they deny the necessity of human liberty, and indeed, consider it intolerable. For them, conscience, reason, and free will must be crushed so that humans will submit to arbitrary and cruel authority.

Yes! The West will prevail through ideas. Despite the abject terror of European power-elites at admitting it, our civilization is founded on the Christian Faith.1 Medieval Christians preserved what was good of ancient learning after the greed and decadence of pagan wealth hollowed out and imploded the old Empire. And they built a new civilization based on logos, reason, and the Logos. The Renaissance didn't materialize out of thin air, but stood on the shoulders of the steady efforts of the medievals. Without medieval Christians, there would have been no scientific revolution.2

Yes, that's right, Bob, keep going...!

Against this foe, science is our strongest weapon, not simply because it produces useful devices and medical cures, but because it demonstrates the value of a civilization based upon the use of reason. There was a time when we celebrated the divine nature of the human spirit by building Gothic cathedrals. Today we build space telescopes. Science is our society’s sacred enterprise [???]; through it we assert the fundamental dignity of man. And because it ventures into the cosmic realm of ultimate truth [???], space exploration is the very banner of science.

Reading the words I've emphasized was like driving a formula-1 racecar full-throttle over "severe tire damage" spikes. It is possible that "space exploration as religion" is just a rhetorical tool that Zubrin uses to reach a presumably secular audience. But I am not so sure.

Space Is Empty

Not long ago, I attended an informal meeting of space enthusiasts to brainstorm ways to make space flight possible. Throwing a human being and his miniature life-sustaining world beyond the planet's atmosphere is an expensive proposition whose societal benefits are not all that obvious. What most struck me about the gathering was that the most enthusiastic about space were simply casting about for a credible excuse for the rest of us to pay for their joy-ride. It's a "solution" in search of a problem.3

Unanswered is the question: what in particular about space is supposed to make us happy?

In a sense, space is a big (very big!) Rorschach test, a massive ink-blot that tells us more about ourselves than about anything else. Perhaps we look to space to avoid the here and now.

One of the cornerstones of the modern psyche, as exemplified by Star Trek4 is that humanity will somehow find fulfillment in the vast "other" of the universe. If it is not Almighty Space will bring meaning to everything, then it is the personal "others" that inhabit it.

But are we searching the outer universe to avoid gazing on the emptiness within?5

"Deep calleth unto deep with the voice of thy water-spouts." It was God whom [the psalmist] addressed, who "remembered him from the land of Jordan and Hermon." It was in wonder and admiration he spake this: "Abyss calleth unto abyss with the voice of Thy water-spouts." What abyss is this that calls, and to what other abyss? Justly, because the "understanding" spoken of is an "abyss." For an "abyss" is a depth that cannot be reached or comprehended; and it is principally applied to a great body of water. For there is a "depth," a "profound," the bottom of which cannot be reached by sounding.... If by "abyss" we understand a great depth, is not man's heart, do you not suppose, "an abyss"? For what is there more profound than that "abyss"?

Can the abyss of space fill the abyss of the human heart? But space is just "more of the same." Scientists would have us believe that no place in the universe is unique. How can we be satisfied with more of the stuff that already fails to satisfy?

If space is not the Final Frontier, what is? Perhaps we need to re-examine the dimension most intimate to our existence: time.

Modern life fosters the myth of human mastery over time. It is a scientific-technological illusion. Modern comforts surround us in a cocoon of self-satisfaction, untouched by the rigors of the world beyond our wills. “The world of our making becomes ever more mirror-like,” as Daniel Boorstin wrote. The apparent permanence of institutions, things, and even people in a stable society leads us to take for permanent what is evanescent. Recording and replaying devices give us the idea that we can bottle experience and relive it at will. The empirical method of science itself contributes to the illusion: the repeatability of experiments assumes the non-uniqueness of the present moment or at least that the experimenter possesses a space-like mastery over time. In truth a replayed experience can be at best only very similar to the original; no moment is ever truly the same as any other and humans will never master time as we have space. No matter how hard we try, we cannot go home again. Present realities inexorably drain into the past. The entirety of our life is an inexorable journey toward death. No matter how much of the world we conquer, we cannot avoid that final mystery that masters us all.

As finite beings, we do not have arbitrary control over the span of our lives, but we can control how we spend the here-and-nows that, put together, make our lives.

We need to consider the possibility that the otherness of space and the otherness of extraterrestrials won't ultimately fill our hearts, and that perhaps we need to look much closer to home: to the other person right in front of us, and the Infinite Other in whose image that person was created.

In Sum

So what should we do about NASA? Should we go to Mars? My answer is that NASA is worthwhile if we can re-inject it with purpose (the very thing that modern scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, would have us believe doesn't exist). The Mars mission is a worthy endeavor, a meaningful achievement. It could even help reinvigorate the West's faith in human reason and the mind's ability to grasp the world's meaning...


...but not if we insist on investing space with "ultimate" meaning.


Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Ps 42:11)

Some cool Apollo 11 links:


1. See, for example, Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Civilization.

2. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos

3. The "weightlessness" of space, for example, is not unique. The experience of anyone free-falling is identical, as Einstein's general theory of relativity has made evident.

4. Cf. Star Trek: First Contact (1996). (More on the Trek religion in future.)
Trek Trivia: In the "Tomorrow is Yesterday" episode, the Enterprise crew intercepts a radio report that the first manned moon shot will take place on Wednesday. Apollo 11 was launched nearly two years after the filming on 16 July 1969, a Wednesday.

5. "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Lk 17:21) Cf. the final words of Joseph Conrad's Kurtz who can no longer avoid looking within: "There is nothing" (Heart of Darkness).

Robert Zubrin, "Getting Space Exploration Right" The New Atlantis 8 (Spring 2005), 15-48.

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 257.

John F. Kennedy, "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs" (Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961).

John F. Kennedy, "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" (Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962).

Aurelius Augustinus, Expositions on the Psalms 42, n. 12.

1 comment:

David M. Smith said...

Hi MJ,

Before I owned a bike, I would explore as far as I could go on my feet. Before I owned a car, I would explore as far as I could go on my bike. I now explore the internet in much the same way.

Of course we need to have discussions about the best way to travel in space and the best way to fund the travel. But we must travel in space because exploration is part of the human spirit.

Great post, BTW; keep up the good work.