A Strategic Pause in the Development of Spacefaring Civilization

20 July 2019


The 50th anniversary of what exactly?

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another astronomical body in the solar system. I was alive for the moon landings, and remember watching them on a black and white television. It was a triumph of science and technology and human aspiration all rolled into one.

What does the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 mean? We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Lunar Voyages,” because fifty years of lunar voyages did not follow the Apollo program. Except for the handful of human beings who have been to the moon because of the Apollo program, no one else has been beyond low Earth orbit. We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Human Space Exploration Records,” because the achievement of reaching the moon was not followed by further achievements of human space exploration (except for long-duration stays on space stations — periods of time sufficient for exploration of the solar system, if only we had undertaken such missions). The human mission to the moon was not followed by a human mission to Mars and then further human missions to the farther reaches of the solar system.

I have heard it argued that there needed to be a pause in space exploration and development after Apollo, whether because the cost of the program was unsustainable (when people say this I remind them that the Apollo program didn’t tank the US economy; on the contrary, it stimulated the US economy) or because life on Earth simply had to “catch up” with the Space Age. Either we weren’t ready or (worse yet) weren’t worthy of following up on the Apollo Program with further and more ambitious programs. When I hear this I am reminded of Pascal’s following pensée:

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ — ‘Are you worthy?’ — ‘Yes.’ — ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Then you are just unworthy.'”

This appears as no. 13 in the Penguin edition of the Pensées in the appendix, “Additional Pensées,” and attributed to Blaise Pascal, Textes inédits, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1962 (i.e., you won’t find this in most editions of the Pensées.)

Regardless of your response, you’re going to be unworthy. There is always some reason that can be found that human beings don’t deserve any better than they have. This may sound like an eccentric point to make, but I believe it to be deeply rooted in human psychology, and we neglect this aspect of human psychology at our peril.

So if I ask, “Why do we not have a spacefaring civilization today?” Someone may respond, “Is humanity worthy of a spacefaring civilization?” I answer “Yes,” and I am told, “Humanity is very presumptuous, and therefore unworthy of it.” And if I answer “No,” I am told, “Then humanity is just unworthy.” Put in this context, we see that this is not really an observation about religion, as it appears in Pascal, but an observation about human self-perception. We have, if anything, seen this attitude grow significantly since 20 July 1969, so that there is a significant contingent of persons today who openly argue that humanity should not expand into the universe, but should remain, ought to remain, confined to its homeworld, and entertain no presumptions of greater things for itself.

It is easy to see how a long history of high-handed moral condemnations of the human condition, only just below the surface even today, even in the busy midst of our technological civilization, can be mobilized to shame us into inaction. In other words, this is about original sin, expiation, atonement, sacrifice, and purification — a litany that sounds strikingly similar to what Hume called the “monkish virtues”: celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude. Is this to be our future? Do we aspire to medieval ideals in the midst of modernity? Should we aspire to medieval ideals?

It is worth noting that this spacefaring inaction represents one particular implementation of what I have called the waiting gambit: things will be better eventually, so it is better to wait until conditions improve before undertaking some action. If we act now, we act precipitously, and this will mean acting suboptimally, and perhaps it will mean our ruin. Better to wait. That is to say, better to consign ourselves to silent meditation upon our sins than to exert ourselves with bold adventures. And this reminds me of one of Pascal’s most famous pensées:

Diversion. — When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

No. 136 in the Brunschvicg edition and no. 139 in the Lafuma edition

While there are some among us who are suited for this Pascalian quietude, for most of us, we are at our best when exposing ourselves to pain and peril, engaging in what William James called the “strenuous life.” As Hegel once said, nothing great in the world is accomplished without passion, and pain and peril are the inevitable companions of passionate engagement with the world.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the past fifty years of non-achievement in spacefaring development is that it constitutes a “strategic pause” in the development of spacefaring civilization. But fifty years could easily stretch into a hundred years, and after a hundred years a strategic pause in the development of spacefaring civilization takes on a different character, and we would have to ask ourselves if a century spent waiting to be worthy was a century well spent. Could we call a century of inaction a “pause”? I don’t think so. A century has a particular historical resonance for human beings; it represents a period of historical significance, and cannot be readily dismissed or waved away.

Though I am concerned about the human future and the eventual development of a spacefaring civilization, I also have reason to hope: recent years have seen the development of reusable rocket technology — by private industry, and not by the government run space programs that participated in the Space Race — and this may become a major player in space development. Moreover, my own study of civilization has made it clear to me that civilization today, despite pervasive declensionism in the western world, is more robust than ever before, and the ongoing prospect of civilization is hopeful in and of itself, because as long as technological civilization endures, and new technologies are developed, eventually the technology for a spacefaring breakout will be available at a sufficiently low cost that a small community interested in space exploration will eventually be able to engage in this exploration, even if the greater part of humanity prefers to remain quietly on our homeworld.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “A Strategic Pause in the Development of Spacefaring Civilization”

  1. […] (I have earlier discussed the stagnancy and institutional drift of the US space program in A Strategic Pause in the Development of Spacefaring Civilization.) In section 4, below, we will go into much greater detail on the Stagnant […]

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