I’m going to say something I never thought I would say and that would break the heart of 12-year old me: outer space is boring. It’s really really boring. Well, not space exactly. That’s still a limitless expanse full of unimaginable possibilities, but we are boring. In the 1950s, the United States raced the Soviets to space (and lost). Then, in the 1960s, the US raced the Soviets to the moon (and won).
Then, we gave up. We got lame. The Soviets largely abandoned their greater ambitions in order to invade Afghanistan (almost always a terrible decision) and violate human rights. America decided to try this conservatism thing, which largely amounted to cutting cool things the government does and paying for the rest of it with debt.
Maybe you can tell I’m bitter.
Science-Fiction Lied to Me
I grew up on science-fiction. I consumed almost exclusively sci-fi movies and tv, superhero comic books, and sci-fi/fantasy novels. With the notable exception of The Expanse series, they all feature artificial gravity and faster-than-light space travel. In those books, we’ve gone to Mars or we are in the process of going. Space launches are fairly routine. When corporations control space travel, it’s almost uniformly a bad thing.
In the real world, faster-than-light travel is probably impossible (not America’s fault. That’s just physics.). Artificial gravity is probably impossible as well, but spin gravity is real. The space stations in sci-fi are huge affairs that spin to create artificial gravity. That’s what I thought the International Space Station was. Then, I saw it. It’s a tiny, cramped box that fits maybe four people. There’s no stasis pods, no talking computers to pilot the ship. Hell, it doesn’t even go anywhere.
And now, we’re headed for the commodification of space. Billionaires are launching themselves to “the edge of space,” and the public is supposed to think that’s some kind of an achievement. What’s the achievement? Some rich guys spent a lot of money to almost get to outer space, a feat accomplished in the 1950s?
We’re Going Backwards
It’s not an achievement to do things that were accomplished in the 1950s. If Jeff Bezos spent billions of dollars to design a two-barrel carburetor, we wouldn’t think that was very inspiring. If he built cars that looked exactly like a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, it wouldn’t be very inspiring, but at least it would be really cool. Going to some made-up line and calling it outer space just doesn’t impress me much.
Why? Because it doesn’t advance anything. We know how to get to space. Allowing rich people to go close to it doesn’t advance the cause of humanity in any real way. If they were going to Mars, that would be inspiring. That would be new. But, the fault lies not in the billionaires but in ourselves. The United States essentially gave up on space after we reached the moon.
We designed the space shuttle, but that was just to get to the International Space Station. Then, we shelved the shuttles too. Now, the US can’t even get to the space station. We have to hitch a ride with the Russians. Private corporations send supplies regularly. How is this not considered a national embarrassment?
The Case for Outer Space
The American public often over-estimates how much money we spend on different programs and the actual percentage of our spending. In the American mind, space travel would be wasteful and expensive; however, at the height of the space program, NASA only consumed 4% of the annual budget. Now, it’s down to .5%. I think it should be closer to 10%. But, why? What is the argument for spending trillions of dollars trying to go to lifeless rocks floating in the vacuum?
My argument isn’t practical. I don’t care about finding evidence of microbes on Mars or mining Venus for gases. My argument for space is the same as the argument for Mount Everest, for Tony Hawk landing the 900, for sailing around the world. We should go to space because it’s there.
We might find something interesting and useful out there, or we might not. Also, we might find something that all Americans can believe in. In 2021, it’s cute and popular to say we’re more divided than ever (we’re not. Slavery, Civil War, and segregation were literal divisions. This is just arguing).
I believe wholeheartedly our current sociopolitical moment is so cantankerous and silly because paradoxically, people think it doesn’t matter. We can fight endlessly because the ship of state will continue sailing along relatively smoothly with nowhere to go. Essentially, the US government doesn’t do cool things anymore. So, Americans have largely stopped believing in it. We need cool things because when we believe in the power of government, we believe in the power of collective spirit. We believe in ourselves.
And maybe there’s aliens out there.