A short question rather than a 2000 word post today, just so that I can get you guys to do some of the work instead.
If you go back and read the comments on the Neil Armstrong post on Monday, you’ll see that Kenti and I got into a little kerfuffle over the value of manned spaceflight to places like the Moon. He thinks the money could be better spent solving problems affecting people on Earth today. What I think of him is not printable, but that’s hardly an uncommon view and one of the reasons why the automated probe dudes have had such sway over NASA for the last few decades — it’s cheap, easy and nobody has to die to make it happen. However, while manned spaceflight is more expensive and far riskier, I think the payoff is infinitely more valuable because it’s nothing less than the vision of a future for our species beyond Earth. In particular this:
Society needs ideals and goals just as much as it needs welfare or schools or a national health service. What is the point in a society that simply exists for its own sake?
I feel to be a key factor. I look at it in the same way as I do the government investment in art and the people who take degrees in art and art history. Call me a cultural philistine if you like, but most art doesn’t interest me all that much. Take me to an art gallery and there’s every chance I’d be bored to tears while I was there. However, despite being uninterested in art myself I am happy for the government to invest in creating more of it, and I’m glad that people exist who could tell me about it if I really were interested, and this is because I recognise that art has a metaphysical cultural value above and beyond the cost of the materials and the aesthetic quality of the work. The character of a society is reflected in its art, and in its literature, and in its other forms of creative expression. Art is important, even if I personally don’t really get it, and I think it should be funded right alongside schools and hospitals and all that other stuff.
Now I’m not saying that the space program should be funded as a gigantic arts project, even if an attempt at zero-g painting would be pretty funny. What I am saying is that the space program has that same metaphysical cultural value because it makes a statement about what a society is, and where it is going. However, it also goes above and beyond that because it actually has the potential to get us there while dispensing lots of technological gewgaws like the fancy telecommunications device you probably have somewhere on your person right now. Space travel provides a potential out for humanity, the chance of a life past simply existing here on Earth until we multiply to the point where the resources and the food no longer sustains us and everything collapses into a Mad Max post-apocalyptic dystopia. In short, Armstrong walking on the Moon was important because it was a powerful symbol that gave us as a collective species some hope for the future beyond our Earth-bound existence, and that’s why never going back was such a crushing disappointment.
Still, that’s just me. Innokenti thinks differently. Maybe you do too. What do you think?