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