Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Human Imperative

For the next several days, the national discourse is going to turn on President Obama’s State of the Union address, and this is as it should be. However, I would like to call attention to a news item that I suppose many people will overlook, and how it dovetails nicely with the call to America that President Obama issued in that address, to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

Tuesday’s New York Times carried an article by Kenneth Chang on the current status of NASA and its projects. The article quotes James A. M. Muncy, a space policy consultant, who describes the situation at NASA as “a train wreck ... where everyone involved knows it’s a train wreck.” Overall, the agency has been given uninspiring and unambitious direction by Congress, and much less money than necessary to achieve even what it has been given to do. It seems that, given the current state of the national economy, NASA’s exploration mission has been put on the very last row of burners of the very large stove of our national priorities.

I understand that we live in extremely difficult financial circumstances. However, I would like to take this opportunity to come at the whole issue of the economy, national priorities, and so forth, from a somewhat different direction than we are used to taking. Start off by looking at the picture accompanying this blog post, the famous “blue marble” picture taken by Apollo 17 in the early Seventies, just as the Apollo program was winding down. Look at it for awhile, then come back and pick up from here.

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Throughout human history, human beings have been called to face an extraordinarily large range of challenges, a range so large that most species simply could not have adapted to meet them. We have settled environments ranging from the frigid polar regions to the searing deserts. Using primitive technology to provide adequate clothing and hunting implements, humans have spread their settlements across valleys and jungles and Himalayan mountain plateaus; with more sophisticated technology, we are exploring ocean depths. We have encountered diseases, wars, famines, and floods. We form our world with language, abstract thought, culture and technology. The daily life of a technologically savvy American in the 21st century would be almost inconceivable to that person’s 10th century ancestors in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, or the islands of the Pacific.

And yet, through all that change, in all those environments, through all the fifty or so centuries of written human history, there has been one stable constant, one thing that the race has always engaged in, one thing that pushed it forward.


They say that early humans pushed out of Africa. Later, the history of languages suggests, Indo-Europeans spread from the Indus River basin to Western Europe. The exploratory impulse is sometimes hidden under the guise of military conquest. To focus just on European and Mediterranean civilizations, the Egyptians engaged in massive voyages of exploration; the Greeks travelled thousands of miles to form an empire; the Romans traveled to create an empire that spanned from Scotland to the gates of Persia. The Huns, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals swept out of the steppes of Central Asia, throughout mainland Europe, ultimately ending up on the Iberian peninsula of Spain—because they simply ran out of land. The Vikings didn’t let a little thing like running out of land stop them; they extended their territories from Scandinavia to Iceland, then Greenland, then North America, however briefly. The Americas were discovered at least three different ways: by land bridges from Asia to North America; by sea across the Atlantic; by sea across the Pacific. And I am omitting from this narrative any detail about the explorers of Africa and Asia.

Human beings explore. It is part of our very being, part of the essence of what it means to be human. Sometimes we have explored peacefully, sometimes belligerently, but, as a race of beings, we always, always have explored.

And what has come of it? Room to live, certainly, but beyond that obvious result, it can be argued that much of human technology and culture are byproducts of exploration.

Much technological development has been driven by exploration. Advances in transportation and communication are obvious examples. It is too often forgotten today that the Apollo program provoked great development in computer technology and materials science. (It wasn’t all about Tang and space pens, folks.)

Much of cultural development has been driven by exploration. Wherever humans have explored, they have brought things home. It’s not just Marco Polo bringing gunpowder from China to Europe, or explorers introducing the potato to Europe from the Americas. It’s also about the bringing of ideas and experiences to different cultures and peoples.

Here’s the thing about exploration: individual expeditions may come to nothing, may even end disastrously, but over the long haul, exploration always brings in more dividends than the assets expended. So where do we go, now? Either down, into the earth, or up—into space.

Right now, a thoughtful commitment to space exploration would do wonders to jump-start employment, science, technology, and the spirit of innovation in the United States. Consider this kind of time table:

  • 2025: Return to the Moon with a sustainable human presence.
  • 2050: Reach Mars and begin an ongoing human presence on the Red Planet.
  • 2075: Establish human scientific stations throughout the solar system, including some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
  • 2100: Launch a mission to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

To do this, we would have to force ourselves to make major innovations in computer science, materials science, the technologies of propulsion and communication, and perhaps even advance our basic understanding of the underlying physics of the universe. (Steven Hawking thinks that Star Trek-style warp drives are physically possible. Let’s find out.) We would have to have the best educational system ever devised in human history, to help bring these innovations about. We would have to make quantum leaps in technology.

Frankly, the Sixties space exploration program was far too limited in what its vision became to do much good. In the end, it became all about beating the Russians to the moon, the ultimate ‘so what?’ of meaningless achievement. The vision that President Kennedy had was betrayed by his presidential successors. The two good things about the space program of that era are that (1) it gave the human race a taste of what was possible, and (2) it gave us images like the one at the head of this post, to remind us that we are, all of us, on a single world, and we would do well to cherish it, and to make nice with our neighbors.

But a new space program, a real space program, could revitalize both America and the whole world, and help us to transcend the soul-numbing conflicts of the Twentieth and early Twenty-First centuries. Yes, it will help the national economy. But it will put us back in touch with a crucial aspect of the human soul, as well.

As you look towards fulfilling your 2011 priorities and, ahead, to 2012, give us our wings back, Mr. President. You may find that you meet all your goals and much, much more.

 A real space program: that would truly be On The Mark.


  • Chang, K. (2011, January 25). For NASA, longest countdown awaits. The New York Times [Late Edition], pp. D1, D4.

[The photo of the Earth was taken on December 7, 1972, from the Apollo 17 spacecraft. The picture is in the public domain and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

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