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




The Radical Wrights

Yesterday was the 105th anniversary of the Wright brother’s first flight and I thought all evening about their accomplishment.  I dug out my dog-eared copy of Tom Crouch’s excellent biography “The Bishop’s Boys” and read a few paragraphs.  Whenever I can, I visit the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum on the national mall to see the second floor room where the “Flyer” is enshrined.

The Wright brothers are held to be the penultimate real-life historical proof that Horatio Alger was right; hard work, ingenuity, and courage can lead to success, fame, and fortune. 

Or maybe not. 

There were a huge number of people working on the problem of heavier than air flight in the early 20th century.  There are competing claims from supporters of many of those early inventers that some of them “beat” the Wright brothers to achieve the first flight.  None of these claims hold up under scrutiny however.  If the Wright brothers had not existed, or had been happy to be merely bicycle makers, someone else would have flow — the only question is how much later.  Based on my study, it probably would have been quite a lot later.  Literally everybody else was pursuing the dead end of making a perfectly stable aircraft. Today we know that is impossible.  The Wright brothers had a different idea: to build a purposely unstable aircraft with adequate controls to allow a human to manage that instability.  Of course that is not all, but imagine the consequences if the Wright brothers had not pursued their inherently unstable aircraft idea.  What would have happened during WWI with no aircraft?  No Red Baron, no Eddie Rickenbaker, no Hermann Goering, no Billy Mitchell, at least not as we know them today.  Only  tethered balloons for artillery spotters — not much different than the American Civil War — and the Zeppelins.  If the invention of the airplane had been delayed by 20 years, would Charles Lindberg Ameila Earhart be remembered today?  And  would the Japanese Imperial Navy have built aircraft carriers by 1941?  History would have been different in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Yet the Wright brothers succeeded because of a confluence of time, capabilities, and events.  If Octave Chanute had not published his work, if internal combustion engines had not sufficiently developed to generate 12 horsepower from an engine weighing less than 150 pounds,  if Bishop Milton Wright had not bought a 50 cent Penaud helicopter toy to bring home to his sons to play with, if the brothers had given up after the failure of their 1901 kite when Wilbur wrote “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly”, if, if, if, if any of a thousand events had unfolded differently, what would have happened?

The Wright brothers invention succeeded because they were the right people with the right knowledge at the right time in history — and because they worked really hard at making their dream a success.

In retrospect, history looks deterministic.  Everything happened as it was supposed to.  Events unfolded according to some cosmic plan.  In reality, we make our own history.  Decisions every day determine what the future will be.    Edmund Burke’s words ought to ring in our ears:  “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Recently there have been a spate of commentators that have decried our national plan to explore space as unrealistic.  That may be a topic for serious debate.  But one argument that they have advanced is nonsense.  The argument that Apollo was successful and could have only happened because of the historical influences of the times, and since the times and world events are different, the successor to Apollo cannot happen today.

Certainly the times and events influenced Apollo and the moon landings and caused certain decisions to be made in certain ways; events may have moved faster or slower had events been different.  All that I grant you.  But to leap from the historical record to the conclusion that no large national (or international!) exploration of space can take place today because the times are different is unwarranted.

This is a time when there is a confluence of capabilities and events.  All that is required is that innovative people work really hard to achieve their dreams. 

And in that way, these times are no different from 1969 or 1903.