Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Space Cadet Politics

Nader Elhenawy has a rather long, but worthwhile piece on The Space Review. Go on and read it, or my selective commentary won't make much sense.


I could not help being struck by the predominance of a libertarian-conservative outlook among those who follow these matters online. (I specify it as libertarian-conservative because our use of the word “libertarian” tends to overlook the long history of left-libertarianism.)
Why this should be the case is far from obvious.

The author would not be surprised by the prevalence of conservatism/libertarianism in space if he read a little more Robert A. Heinlein, who was a science fiction writer focusing on rockets. He also was a 1930s liberal and later '50s and '60s conservative/libertarian, but a capitalist all the way down the line.

Re: postmoderism as a conservative perspective

I found this twist on things interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. Classical liberalism, with its emphases on individual liberty and progress, is now part of today's conservative-liberatarians. Meanwhile postmodernism is very much a part of progressivism/liberalism, with its emphases on relativism, postcolonialism, feminism, and other -isms that question Western rationality, technology, and universal philosophies (e.g. Christianity, capitalism).

The "final frontier" of Democrat John F. Kennedy (and his disciple Gene Roddenberry) is now questioned as "imperialist" by postcolonial theorists in that same party. Progressives support green power and genetic activities because they are small, earthbound, and so not likely to intimidate or overpower the individual. Rocketry cannot help but be big--a sin in itself, for reasons that elude me--because of the sheer number of experts and money required to make it a going concern.

In short, space is merely an extension of our present and past ideological battles applied to a broad canvas--the ultimate blank slate. Examples can be found in the pages of science fiction. The "Future History" short stories of Robert Heinlein collected in The Past Through Tomorrow might be seen as the genesis of the conservative-libertarian viewpoint. If you want to see an example of government-centric "New Deal" or "Great Society" liberalism in space, check out Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, starting with Red Mars. Another "grand vision" for space is the (Carl) Saganite ethos of making the universe safe for robots, while humans stay home. Still another is that of Gerard K. O'Neill, which is more or less the vision of the National Space Society. O'Neill believed in large orbital settlements/cities in space, manufactured by and sustaining a high-tech industrial civilization. It's very difficult to find a postmodern vision for near-term space exploration because most of the component ideologies that make it up are more concerned about denouncing and undoing Western capitalism/conservatism here on Earth.

One thing that I should point out is that science and technology are essentially apolitical. You can be a communist, a capitalist, a Mormon, or a Zoroastrian--if you follow the laws of nature and build things correctly, you can get people and cargo into space. As the Soviet Union proved. As did Communist China, India, and now Iran. A human future in space is, perhaps, inevitable. The form of society that the future takes is up for grabs. So we'll see how it all sorts out. The private sector might, indeed, win the battle to control the economy in low Earth least until the government decides to regulate them out of existence.

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