Philosopher Corps


Following the Apollo 11 40th anniversary celebrations, a close friend of mine who does not work in aerospace asked me for the top 5 space books he should read.  Topping my list is Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”.  That is the quintessential book about the early days of American’s manned space flight; a must-read for anybody interested in the topic.


However, there are a few things that Mr. Wolfe did not quite capture, a small criticism from somebody who has never attempted to write a book.  So it was of some interest that I read Mr. Wolfe’s New York Times opinion piece on the Apollo moon landing.  You can find it here:


Since one of the main purposes of this blog is to provide some public framework that explains why human space flight is important, I suppose I could be distressed by Mr. Wolfe’s conclusion that there are no philosophers who have articulated a vision and rationale for these goals.  What am I?  Well, not a philosophy major certainly; six hours as an undergraduate does not qualify me in that field.  Most of the modern day philosophers I have read are dense, hard to understand, and certainly no engaging in a common public sort of arena.   I wonder if Aristotle or Immanuel Kant had written on space flight would that make a difference in today’s open ended debate?  And what if NASA had proposed hiring a Corps of Philosophers in 1970?  Would the Office of Personnel Management approved it?  Hmmm.


Besides, I believe that there are plenty of philosophers (by practice if not by degree) that have provided publicly engaging rationale for space flight:  think of Carl Sagan, Gerard K. O’Neill, Gene Shoemaker, Neil DeGrasse Tyson just to name a few. 


Besides, you don’t have to see too many clips of people interviewed on the street who don’t know who our first president was or what is in the constitution to figure out that some folks are probably just never going to get it.  Not that we shouldn’t try.


But if you want the best rationale I have ever heard, I want you to read this essay written by Archibald McLeish when he was Poet Laureate of the US, inspired by Apollo, at the end of 1968. 



        Our conception of ourselves and of each other has always depended on our image of the earth.

        When the earth was the World – all the world there was – and the stars were lights in

Dante’s Heaven, and the ground beneath our feet roofed Hell, we saw ourselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole particular concern of God.  And from that high place, man ruled and killed as he pleased. 


        And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the world but a small, wet, spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the vastness of space – when Dante’s Heaven foundered and there was no Hell – no Hell, at least, beneath our feet – men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors in the solemn paces of a noble play, but rather as the victims of an idiotic farce where all the rest were victims also and multitudes had perished without meaning.


        Now, in this latest generation of mankind, the image may have altered once again.  For the first time in all of time men have seen the earth with their own eyes – seen the whole earth in the vast void as even Dante never dreamed of seeing it – seen what whimpering victims could not guess a man might see.


        When they saw the earth, “halfway to the moon” they put it, they asked “Is it inhabited?” and laughed.  And then they did not laugh.


        The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything.  The scientific notion put him nowhere: beyond the range of sense or reason, lost in absurdity and death.  This latest notion may have other consequences.  Formed as it was in the eyes of heroic voyagers where were also men, it may remake our lost conception of ourselves.  No longer the preposterous player at the center of an unreal stage – no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the verges of reality and blind with blood – man may discover what he really is.


        To see the earth as we now see it, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the unending night – brothers who see now that they are truly brothers.


                                        -Riders on the Earth, Archibald MacLeish, 1968




14 thoughts on “Philosopher Corps”

  1. The rationale I usually give people is this. The Earth is a large pie, and all of the inhabitants get a slice. As the populations grows, there are only two alternatives: 1. Everyone gets a smaller slice of pie; or 2. We have to go get more ingredients from somewhere else. And every day that we put off the notion that we are able or need to go off world to get those ingredients is another day farther away those ingredients get. Heaven help us if we haven’t sorted all that out before the slices get too small to feed us.

  2. Imagine if you would had Armstrong not been able to set the Apollo 11 LEM safely down on the Moon (since it had been guided to the wrong spot) or that Apollo 13 not safely made it back to Earth after the CSM disaster. Our track record of landing on Mars is hardly stellar.

    Exploring our solar system is a vitally important scientific exercise for any of a number of reason, but we can put robotic explorers up on Mars or the Moon at far less cost and risk then the vanity of manned exploration.

  3. An interesting insight into a very provocative and discussable topic. Mr. MacLeish certainly has a depth of philosophy to offer. No disrepect to him or to you, Mr. Hale. However, I think that we don’t need a philosopher’s corp to answer this question. I don’t think that we need stuffy or long winded people of high education or large brain capacity. I believe that every brother riding this earth together can find his own answer. Even those who profess no support for the space program has it within himself to understand the concepts of wondering and exploring. Everyone is curious about something. And it is better left to those who feel intimidated by the higher thinking, or who blither on about “waste” in the space program to find his own answer inside. Only when one comprehends it on a level he can digest and express will he come to see the true value of human space exploration. Certainly if one hasn’t entertained the notion, blogs such as yours and commentary such as Mr. MacLeish’s provide a stimulus to stir the brain and soul. So I do not wish to demean, but to provide another viewpoint. I wish not to attack, but merely to bring my own pail of sand to a very big sandbox. Thank you for that opportunity, and for a wonderful blog.

  4. Based on budget projections, you better get used to writing philosophy if you want to stick to the NASA thing. The future is cars.

  5. Wayne,

    I want to say first that I enjoy reading your blog – I wish it were possible for you to post more often, but you are likely a busy man.

    I’ve read Tom’s book and I agree with you – it’s right at the top of the list. It’s the only book I have read thus far (no offense to Andy Chaikin or Gene Kranz) that really captured the *spirit* of the early days. I certainly learned a lot from it. His concept of the “single combat warrior” is a perfect analog as I see it (not having lived through it…)

    I think the point he was trying to make is this: in light of the loss of the use of the single combat warrior as a means to sway public opinion, NASA was in need of inside personnel (be it engineers or astronauts or management) who could, by means of “space philosophy”, sway the public opinion. These “space philosophers” would, in effect, have to be a new type of “single combat warrior”, but instead of the Soviets being the enemy, it would be declining public approval for a huge effort to go beyond the moon. This was especially critical during the years immediately following Apollo 11.

    I’m not insinuating that neither your nor Carl nor Neil did no good to advance NASA by philosophy, I just personally feel that NASA has failed to give the public-at-large a real reason to care. We have no enemy to face and persevere over, and so we cannot have the heroes of yesteryear. We must find a way to establish a hero of the here and now, a hero to face an enemy, be it concrete or abstract.

    I suppose that part of the problem is that NASA must “compete” for attention against the thousands of other aspects of daily life, from big issues like war and poverty, to the big blockbuster movie that just came out, or the death of some Hollywood celebrity (yeah… they die just like normal people do…). I believe NASA has failed in the aspect, to capture the public’s attention and imaginations.

    Sure, most people are probably amazed by what NASA does, but they also don’t know *why* NASA does it.

    Here’s a quick suggestion for starters: Get NASA TV on cable, and make it free for everyone to watch. You’re missing out on a huge chunk of the population. Don’t just rely on the mass media to deliver your message.

    I have a true fondness for NASA and want nothing more than to see it succeed, so please, do succeed. Just remember this: The ball has always been in your court. You just need to learn to run with it.

  6. “Humanity must rise above the Earth, to the top of the atmosphere and beyond, for only then will we fully understand the world in which we live” – Socrates 469-399 B.C.

  7. Thank you for getting it, for being a philosopher, for carrying the torch, and for trying.

  8. Mr. Hale,

    You are the Man. YOU don’t need a degree in philosophy to be NASA’s philosopher. You have lived and breathed an entire career there, given your life experiences you are more than qualified for the job.

    This blog is your venue and you have a loyal following already. Keep writing, you are a natural author. You make clear the muddy waters of beauocracy, give the masses something to chew on besides who winning on “idol”. Your thoughtful words, put the little gray cells to work. Perhaps a book of your musings is in order. I’d buy it.

    Really enjoy your work,

  9. With all due respect NASA does not need philosophers – it needs politically savy leaders who can convince/co-erce the President and Congress to increase funding for NASA instead of cutting it. I don’t believe the last 3 NASA Administrators had that ability and were actually detrimental to NASA. I really now fear that once the Shuttle program is shutdown (as no doubt Obama will let occur as scheduled in late 2010 or early 2011) no American astronaut will ever again fly into space on a US NASA rocket. NASA needs to position itself so it is seen as a National strategic technical asset and charged with getting humanity off the Earth onto both the Moon and Mars and ensure its funded to achieve that in a reasonable timeframe. I fear another generation or two is now to be consigned again to low Earth orbit (if they are lucky !!) Lets get on with !!

  10. Wayne-

    I agree with you that we already have philosophers who can articulate what it means to venture into the Cosmos. These visonaries are capable of carrying the message, but where is their voice? We hear them now and again, perhaps on Discovery or the History Channel or on the National Geographic Channel on cable. Unforutunately, their voice is muted by the crush of more prevalent, but far less significant issues, such as “What did Brittany Spears do today?” or “Who is going to make it to the end of 1)American Idol, 2) Survivor, or 3) America’s Got Talent?” Pick one…any one.

    In my opinion, it must be up to our Government through its Space Agency, NASA, to inspire. We must recapture the spirit of Apollo, but this time there must be a longer term, more purposeful goal. Perhaps it is Mars, or Europa, or something else. It only takes commitment and a sense of national will. We have GOT to get our young peole more focused on something other than the self centered, indulgent crap they are focused on right now. It can be done. It has been done before, and I am not talking about just Apollo. How about the Transcontinental Railroad, or the Panama Canal, or the TVA? We can do large projects successfully and recapture the spirit of manifest destiny for all of humanity.

    It just takes guts from our national leaders, commitment, and follow through. If we don’t do it, someone else will. For example, insert “The People’s Republic of China” for the term “someone else’. THEY have a sense of purpose and national will and are happy to step up to the plate of we don’t. HUMANS will explore, but not necessarily American humans.

    Keep pushing, Wayne! Sound the toscin and get the others, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson to do so more forcefully. The dabate needs to be joined on a national level for all to see and hear.

    BTW- I really enjoyed meeting you at the Committee on Human Space Flight Public Meeting at Cocoa Beach. You are a great voice for this challenge. I only ask that you use your influence and professional credibility to get others to speak up as loudly as you do, and to the right people.

    Best regards always,

    Brian Hathaway

  11. A philosopher is someone who thinks about things. The things may be objective aspects of the space program and the engineering of it or subjective questions like, should we be going (to the Moon or to Mars)when human needs are so acute? The current administration leans toward the subjective; human needs trump all others. But what about my needs? I want to see. I want to see the surface of the Moon close up – through another person’s eyes or through the lenses of cameras on a Lunar rover. How do balance our need to explore against the need to heal a sick child? If that child has nothing more to expect in life than going to work each day, raising a family, and watching silly TV shows, has his or her life been at all enhanced or enriched? We need someone who knows what he’s talking about to awaken us to the possibilities and show us where to go. That’s what a philosopher does.

  12. The most profound reason for going into space was stated by mountaineer George Mallory, who when asked in 1923 why he was planning to climb Everest, responded “because it’s there.” When humans stop going places no one has ever been before, we have accepted our death warrant as a species.

  13. About the crash of LRO.
    People are like disspointed about the results of last’s weeks event. Verey bad visual information. Why if here, on earth we can see even a car and more by Google’s Earth, there are a very poor visual info of that event on moon? This is a simply curious and honest question. If you can’t answer this, will appreciatte redirect me to the right place.
    I admire your posts and miss your comments on Shuttle missions on NASA TV.

  14. I agree with you that we already have philosophers who can articulate what it means to venture into the Cosmos. These visonaries are capable of carrying the message, but where is their voice? We hear them now and again, perhaps on Discovery or the History Channel or on the National Geographic Channel on cable.

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