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Guest Thinkers

Does NASA Need a Philosopher?

One of the most disappointing moments in an otherwise fairly encouraging Republican New Hampshire debate was that none of the seven candidates would continue federal funding for human space flight.  Newt was about “a real space program that works,” but, for him, that now means privatization as the key to innovation.

My own view is that space exploration is a project that our government should believe in.  So I’m taking the liberty of sharing with you a defense of that exploration and even, in a limited sense, space conquest as necessary and choiceworthy Amerian efforts that I wrote a couple of years ago.

According to Tom Wolfe, NASA’s best journalistic poet, our space program needs a philosophic justification to get the “godlike” adventure that gave us all that heroic right stuff going again. Here are a few random thoughts in that direction. I’m not saying that I’m volunteering to be a pioneer to Mars or that I’m not aware that there’s a powerful case in the other direction. But it’s always a mistake not to give Tom Wolfe a hearing.

1. JFK understood that the space race with the Soviets was a key part of a military contest that we were stuck with taking with dead seriousness. We still need a space program for military reasons, although that probably doesn’t involve going to Mars. We have no choice but to remain techno-dominant, and our likely eventual war with the Chinese may well be fought in space. People can retreat to their porches or not as the please, but technology will continue to develop whether we like it or not. I’m saying this first because Wolfe doesn’t say it and because President Obama (contrary to the sagacious advice of Gates) doesn’t even see clearly enough that modernizing our nuclear weapons is the best way to save lives and liberty. I could say something similar about the need to keep ahead in nanotechnology, no matter how scary or potentially “dehumanizing” it may be. Describing the prospect of nanotechology combined with space travel is above my pay grade.

2. Actually, Wolfe says NASA did have a philosopher–Wernher von Braun, whose word didn’t catch on, he speculates, because he was a German with a Nazi background. But Americans are pretty open to listening to Germans (like Leo Strauss) and even Germans with Nazi backgrounds (like Martin Heidegger). So I can’t help but add that von Braun’s word just didn’t get out.

3. Wolfe heard that word in a dinner speech and can’t point us to any text. Here’s my version of it: Only human beings are open to the truth about all things. Only human beings live meaningful lives. With their disappearance, the truth about Being would have no one to know it, and the universe would become meaningless matter and nothing more. So far, we’re stuck in a very vulnerable position on this planet. It might be pulverized by an asteroid at any time; we might accidentally blow it up or trash it beyond repair. The sun will stop shining some day, no matter what we do. We have a duty–in the name of meaning and Being–to spread ourselves out around the cosmos, giving philosophy, as Strauss would say, the longest possible future–not to mention virtue, dignity, poetry, and (some would impiously say) God.

4. That duty seems deeper, from an anthropocentric view, than merely our duty to “the environment.” No matter how well we treat our planet, eventually it will turn on us. We’re getting increasingly paranoid about “climate change,” forgetting that we have no “natural right” to a stable climate, one that will support lives such our ours. Surely our duty to preserve “man” is more profound than our duty to do what we can to preserve earthly nature. (The two duties are obviously not incompatible.)

5. It seems pretty likely that we can employ our technological freedom to make other planets inhabitable. That will increase our experiences of “displacement” and produce various neuroses connected with earth deprivation and earth nostalgia. But it won’t change fundamentally who we are. If we find other meaningful life, that won’t prove there’s no God, and we’ll remain stuck with virtue and “born to trouble” out there, as we are here.

6. Von Braun’s philosophizing makes a lot more sense than Carl Sagan’s silly thought that planet hopping be justified by making conscious and sacred our natural inclination to species preservation. To the extent animals become conscious, they become less driven by what’s best for the species. But the way the German describes the duty does seem noble and distinctively human.

7. Sagan was also animated by the silly thought that we search the cosmos for much more intelligent and so benign extaterrestial intelligences that can cure us of what ails us. If there are super-intelligent ETs, we should not make ourselves known to them. We have no evidence that there’s any connection between being really, really smart and techno-advanced and being peaceful. The ETs in ET and CONTACT are baloney. MEN IN BLACK–the first one–seems closer to the truth. Really smart beings–like Heidegger–are likely to be really perverse, screwed up, and a danger to themselves and others. Von Braun’s philosophizing is based on what is to me the more reasonable thought that there are no other really brainy beings out there, that we are in crucial respects on our own in the cosmos.


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