Apollo and Everest

30 August 2012


The recent passing of Neil Armstrong provides an opportunity to reflect once again on the moribund space program and the sorry state of human space exploration. In my Tumblr post on Neil Armstrong I mentioned the article Neil Armstrong’s death should be a wake-up call for the world by Martin Robbins writing in The Guardian, which was a forceful reflection on precisely this topic.

The collapse of ambitious human spaceflight programs (sometimes called the “Conquest of Space”), and the constant talk of a manned mission to Mars coupled with the absence of any action to begin such a project, contrasts strikingly with the “Conquest of Everest” by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, which began an ambitious mountaineering trend that has, in our own time, come close to being a mass phenomenon — sort of like playing golf, although a bit more restrictive and exclusive.

In the case of the lack of any follow-through after, or follow-up to, the Apollo program, this lack of action followed a public perception revealed in contemporary sources that all would be onward and upward after the Apollo program: that we would continue to go to the moon and not too long after that to Mars, and we would inhabit that exciting world that the futurists presented to us. Of course, we could have done so, but this didn’t happen. On the contrary, “moonshot” has now become an immediately and intuitively unambiguous metaphor that refers to a one-off heroic effort that is not followed by an encore.

In the case of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay, the opposite expectation was operative. I have previously quoted Sir Edmund Hilary (in The Heroic Conception of Civilization) regarding his ascent of Everest, as follows:

…Sir Edmund Hillary… was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Yet Sir Edmund Hilary could not have been more mistaken, and he recognized this in the quote above. This effort to climb Everest, which he had himself understood as a “one-off heroic effort” that would not be followed by an encore, began a trickle that has now become a flood; the ascent of Everest has now become a “bucket list” item for the wealthy and privileged rather than a one-off “moonshot” that was impracticable to replicate.

At least part of the different perception and different consequences of Apollo and Everest must be attributed to the nearly insurmountable technical and financial obstacles to human spaceflight. To date, only large and relatively wealthy nation-states can afford the resources of putting human beings into space, and as a consequence these efforts came to be seen as intrinsically related to national prestige, whereas the work-a-day satellite launching business now has quite a number of competing enterprises both public and private represented.

As important as this is, however, it is not the whole difference. Part of it must also be credited to the shift, following the end of the Second World War and the middle of the century, from an Heroic Conception of Civilization to an Iterative Conception of Civilization. That the ascent of Everest can be iterated by anyone with sufficient resources and will makes it a Maslovian “peak experience” (if you will forgive the pun) available to a select and privileged subset of Mass Man.

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