Saturday, November 10, 2007

Old Arguments Aren't Necessarily the Best

"The age of someone can be determined by the amount of pain they feel by encountering a new idea." --Eileen Collins, Astronaut

I became struck by this comment once again as I read The High Ground by Ben Bova, a director of the National Space Society, and a long-time science fiction writer and space advocate. The book was written in 1981 and, despite its being written at the beginning of the Shuttle era, it depressed me that it uses many of the same arguments for space settlement and industry that the National Space Society uses today. It's all there: the need for Solar Power Satellites to overcome the energy crisis; the need for low-cost access to orbit; the potential of asteroids to provide materials for our economy; the need to get the environmentalists involved in supporting space-based activities.

Has American society become so "old" (established) that the "new" idea of expanding into space is now considered anathema? Or are the arguments of the NSS (neƩ L-5 Society and National Space Institute) so stale that they make no impact? And, again, what does it say about NSS that our arguments for establishing a spacefaring civilization haven't changed in 26 years?

Bova did give me a different spin on my review of The Singularity is Near. He points out that we were (are) faced with Luddites and "Prometheans," technological optimists who take their name from Prometheus, the mythical bringer of fire to mankind. However, while Bova makes a good case for continuing with technology--that technologies are all solutions to problems and that because of that basis, their benefits usually outweigh their hazards--he still overlooks the simple fact of human evil. But then I must consider: just because a group of Muslim terrorists flew a few 767s and 757s into buildings, does that mean that I think the airplane was a bad idea and should be scrapped? Obviously not, or I would not be so eager to collect frequent flyer miles. Still, I find optimists'/Prometheans' unblinkered view of technological progress unnecessarily cheery. Every technology has its tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs are not always made known to the public until (usually) it's too late. And, as we fall into irrationalism and an increasingly politicized culture, the potential misuse of technology becomes greater.

What's even more maddening about Bova's arguments for space industry is the fact that they occur in a Cold War context. That leads me to one of two theories:
  1. The arguments have not changed in 26 years because they have not adapted to changed circumstances.
  2. The arguments have not changed in 26 years because they are still valid but are not accepted by the public.

Regardless of which proposition is right, it seems obvious that the arguments need to change, either because they are no longer relevant or they don't resonate with the public. Yes, one might argue that we're in a cold war with China and that their space shots toward the Moon are a challenge to our superiority. I've accepted these ideas because they've been new to me. Now I'm not so sure about their provenance. How much pain would NSS undergo if their fundamental arguments were questioned? If the choices are holding to old ideas or success, will older members hold to the old ideas because they worked once upon a time? And, truth be told, the arguments they used 26 years ago obviously did not work, or we wouldn't have the space program and space economy that we do would be better and more in line with NSS principles.

Frustrating. I suppose I'll have to come up with some new arguments, if only to amuse myself.

No comments: