Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Review: Societal Impact of Spaceflight

Want to get depressed as a space advocate? Spend a few hours reading historians and sociologists demolish your dreams. Or, if not demolish them, at least sweep them under a lot of scholarly rhetoric and call them into serious question. The book Societal Impact of Spaceflight is the result of a conference by the same name that occurred in 2006. I will confess to not reading all of the articles, but at least all of the abstracts. The sorts of questions one might reasonably expect to be answered are addressed, but not in ways that will satisfy the true-believers:

  • What impact has exploring space had on society?
  • What impact has space advocacy had on society?
  • Is space inherently a good or bad thing for society?
  • What will the future of society be as it expands into space?

A few things come across very clearly and very well from these papers:

  • The current (especially the NASA and NSS) visions for space exploration and development are especially American sets of beliefs, including a belief in the value of the frontier, the continuation of capitalism and competition into space, and a fundamental belief in progress.
  • Space advocacy itself has a great deal of utopianism about it--and this becomes even more evident as one considers how the idea of progress has been under assault since the end of Apollo. Wendell Mendell, a NASA scientist, even described space advocacy as a religious phenomenon. I would agree with this characterization, given my own life-changing decisions made after my "conversion" at an International Space Development Conference. This is both a benefit and a hindrance.
  • The specific outputs (spinoffs, technologies, societal benefits) derived from space-related activities, from satellites to humans on the Moon to orbiters flying past Neptune, are so intertwined with other Earth-based activities that they are very difficult to specifically quantify. For example, communication satellites are an absolute benefit, as are weather satellites. However, could one claim with 100% certainty that Apollo brought about the computer revolution or that satellites have led to a safer, less conflict-filled world, as the late Sir Arthur Clarke suggested? Not necessarily.
  • The emphasis on competition and national welfare that fueled Apollo have been replaced by a national desire for the space program to pay off in more tangible, identifiable benefits.
  • Space exploration itself continues to be difficult--so difficult, that it is difficult to foresee which ideas will commit nations or businesses to long-term exploration.

The book is divided into six principal sections: Societal Impact of Spaceflight in Context; Turning Point Impacts; Commercial and Economic Impact; Applications, Satellites, the Environment, and National Security; Social Impact; and Spaceflight, Culture, and Ideology.

The opening section consists of a single essay by Howard McCurdy, who is one of the eminences of the space history field, along with Roger Launius, who was an editor of the book. He compares the effort to find the impact of space exploration to the effort to explain the reduction in crime in New York City under the Giuliani administration: was it Giuliani's change in police tactics or simply a decline in the criminal-age population (see Freakonomics and The Tipping Point for these contrasting theories). They're both equally plausible, and thus equally suspect. Could one cause the other, or did one thing (Giuliani's policies) take advantage of something that was happening anyway (a decline in criminals)? McCurdy seems to be an enthusiast for space, but is still doubtful about its full impact. He believes that the images used to promote space reflect a great deal about who we think we are and where we believe we might like to go.

The last section on culture and ideology was of special interest to me, addressing as it does the various justifications that governments and space advocates use to pursue space. Drawing upon many of the luminaries of the space advocacy pantheon (Heinlein, Clarke, Zubrin, Sagan), these essays point to how advocates are not seeking a particularly new society, but rather use space as a way to expand current national values into a larger framework. In this way, conservatives might be more drawn to space expansion than liberals, especially if liberals are questioning the traditions being trumpeted.

And really the difficult part of this book is that I want to believe in the values that America used to sell the final frontier. It is incredibly difficult to "sell space" to entire generations who either don't know, don't care about, or don't like the values that make the space adventure so appealing to me. I'm not some Pollyanna who believes unabashedly in endless progress. It would be nice, of course, but such a vision must be fought for or at least preserved through hard work.

But that is the world in which we live: progress is questioned because it does not come to everyone all at once; capitalism is flawed; technology is looked at for side-effects before benefits; diversity, multicutluralism, and benefits to "targeted groups" are considered primary, not secondary requirements; "shared narratives" and appeals to national greatness no longer sell; and any critic with a computer and Internet access can throw out some wise-sounding remarks, and attempt to block exploration. If there was ever any doubt about whether the world view that gave birth to Apollo is dead, this book should put it to rest. That's a sad fact, but it leaves space advocates with a complicated puzzle: if the old narratives no longer sell, are we prepared to do what it takes to find new ones? And what will we do if those narratives result in uses of space that don't coincide with the visions of 50 years ago, when a U.S. President could naively commit a nation to "land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth"?

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