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Build Me a Bridge to the Stars
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Tom Wolfe on NASA’s philosopher deficit. Resisted a blockquote, because the whole thing has a pleasing arc and totality.

July 19, 2009 / Uncategorized

2 comments

Very good – it’s hard not to like Wolfe, with his spry and downright Sloanian asides.

It made me wonder, though, whether anyone has written a history – whether comparable to The Right Stuff or not – of the Soviet space program. Here you’ve got these juicy anecdotes about Werner von Braun and details about weeping Irish cops, and the architect of the Soviet program is called something like “anonymous grand designer”?

I lived and breathed the US space program for about half of my childhood; I want to know how it looked from the other side.

I feel curmudgeonly about not joining in, since over four years ago I rose to NASA’s defense, but I really can’t read Wolfe’s essay without feeling bitter and angry. His tone has totally destroyed any celebratory mood I had about the moon-landing anniversary. The first two pages of witty whatevers only serve to confirm my ever-growing suspicion that, really, manned space flight is–and always has been–an overblown and overgilded tool of pointless war. Worse than a war tool, really, a way of funneling yet more public cash to bloated, over-funded, under-supervised aerospace-defense companies–giving them a sheen of respectability and a means of genteel recruitment, empowering their tendency to lobby for war and siphoning away money from actually useful Promethean challenges. (Prometheus brought us fire from the gods. He didn’t fight anyone. A race towards 30% efficient solar electricity, while less sexy sounding, would be a greater tribute to his sacrifice.) The expenditure of more than half a trillion dollars of borrowed cash (and the cumulative, stomach-churning guilt that I feel as a citizen everytime I accidentally forget to ignore the Iraq Lancet studies) have dampened my ability to be charmed by participants in the military-industrial complex. I am made particularly cranky by the disingenous ones, like NASA’s manned space flight program, no matter how amusingly their exploits are recounted. Before I thought of NASA as motivation for scientists to be clever; now I’m starting to think of it as an elaborate ruse to distract the best and the brightest from how much our public economy has turned into a death machine. Science as opiate for the smartest?

The manned space program was useful for engaging the imagination of generations and providing a gedanken experiment–“how can humans survive away from the Earth’s surface?”–that stimulated immense innovation. If anything, it had a surfeit of persuasive philosophy on its side. I think it’s more of a failure on the part of every other kind of political philosopher that we couldn’t formulate any of our more immediate challenges into equally compelling inspiration.

In 1996 I wrote a research paper on the Soviet/post-Soviet space program for my high school Russian history class; I recall finding a few non-famous but extremely compelling books chock full of wacky stories, colorful characters and bleak Soviet humor. I also remember that I totally blew my teacher’s mind by including an appendix of printed out Mir pictures and flight data–from the night before. He suddenly realized that the web was going to change his job. I don’t think he actually read the rest of paper.

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