Across our nation, people have been asked to self-quarantine, and guiding these efforts are the parameters defining which businesses are “essential.” Many of these guidelines are as expected, but included among them are “space and aerospace” industries—an odd inclusion by many standards. But I find that the space and aerospace industries are essential to humanity on another, deeper, philosophical level.

Recent weeks hold an unprecedented place in history. We have often faced national, and even global, emergencies—plagues, pandemics, viruses have rocked the world time and time again—but never before have nations rallied for such a widespread, largely preventative response.

Across our own nation, communities and individuals have been asked to self-quarantine, to work from home whenever possible, and to restrict the active workforce to those deemed essential. Guiding these efforts are the parameters issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), defining which businesses are “essential.”

Many of these guidelines are as expected—healthcare, defense, food, and agricultural workers are all included—but so are “space and aerospace” industries.[1] An odd inclusion by many standards (few, I imagine, would consider the space industry as directly essential to daily life) but a thoroughly prudent one. Not only does the space industry “support the essential services required to meet national security commitments,”[2] not only are we bound to care for our citizens in orbit, but the space and aerospace industries are essential to humanity on another, deeper, philosophical level.

In the midst of the coronavirus, we are, as a nation and a world, in ever greater need of hope, and whenever we seek to express wonder or hope, we instinctively turn to the stars.

Hoping for a sports scholarship, we reach for them. Filled with awe or love, we are starry-eyed. Meeting our favorite actor, we are starstruck. Our greatest dreams, passions, and ambitions require this stellar language, and mankind’s instinctive desire for the heavens has been captured and employed by poets, songwriters, theologians, politicians, motivational speakers, and athletes alike with thunderous results.

Yet, on many levels, we have lost our awe and desire for the thing itself. “Reach for the stars!” we enthusiastically cheer for any Earth-bound blaze of glory. But few people are invested in or even aware of the current efforts of our space program—fewer would consider them essential.

On July 19, 1969, the Eagle landed on the moon, and not just within our own country but all around the world, humanity was united, watching and cheering for two men over 200,000 miles away. According to Apollo historian Andrew Chaikin, “an estimated 600 million people, a fifth of the world’s population,” “the largest audience for any single event in history,” watched as man took his first steps on the moon.[3] (For comparison, Avengers: Endgame sold 94.2 million U.S. tickets,[4] and 102 million viewers tuned in to watch the Super Bowl this year.[5]) It was a spectacular moment, not only for the historical and scientific achievement but for the passion and wonder which motivated and drove the achievers on Earth.

Less than a year later, in July 1970, Apollo 13 launched, and no television network was willing to interrupt its regular schedule for the astronauts’ broadcast on their way to the moon. The wives and families of the astronaut crew had to go to the NASA control center to watch; it was showing nowhere else. Only when disaster struck did the world suddenly rally again. That men were going to the moon was old—that they might not get there, or return, was newsworthy.

Yet, despite this emotional resurgence, people’s interest in NASA’s mission steadily dwindled, and with it, the politicians’ support, and with that, the program’s budget. Only four more Apollo missions would be flown, each increasingly at risk of being cancelled, and Apollo 17 ended man’s moon-going stint with Nixon’s admission that “this may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon”[6]—a far cry from Kennedy’s “before this decade is out.”

In the nearly fifty years since Apollo 17, the US space program has faced dwindling budgets, support, and interest, and ever-increasing bureaucracy, culminating in the final Space Shuttle flight in July 2011. It has been over eight years since astronauts launched from American soil, and for nearly a decade, NASA has been dependent on foreign programs to maintain American presence on the International Space Station (ISS).

Did you know that’s about to change?

To fill this gap, the private space industry is booming, financed by (wealthy) visionaries, such as Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Elon Musk (SpaceX). These companies are furthering space exploration one launch at a time, geared toward making space travel safe, affordable, even routine. But while exploration might be the end goal, in the meantime, these companies are trying to make rocketry lucrative, launching satellites and restocking the ISS. The modern space race is a commercial one.

But even these endeavors feel the strain of society’s loss of wonder. I live near Waco, TX, and just a few miles south in McGregor, SpaceX has its test facilities. The massive engines tested there daily are so powerful that you can hear the rumble for miles. Even where I live—a 25 minute drive from the test site—the thunderous roar of the new Raptor engine (being developed to bring man to Mars) is so powerful that my house shakes.

Yet to so many of the locals, these tests are not a cause of wonder or excitement but a nuisance, noise without point. Many don’t know, or don’t care, about the amazing scientific developments and technological progress being made—right in their backyards. There is no wonder or amazement about what is being accomplished and why, so the growl of a rocket with 1,710,000 lbf (pounds of force) is no more exciting than the whirr of the refrigerator.[7]

I write this not to shame our community, which is enormously supportive in so many ways, but to point out an unfortunate reality—as a people, a nation, a society we have lost our sense of wonder, at least as regards space flight.

As had I.

I am no engineer. I really disliked physics in high school. I am an English literature scholar. And growing up as the daughter of a test-pilot and engineer, supersonic jets and NASA contracts were my normal. It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I realized that these things were cool. It was only a few months ago that I realized they are passion-worthy.

It took learning about Aristotelian principles of human nature for me to realize that space exploration is not just a cool, niche interest but an integral passion in the human heart. We not only can do it—we were made to do it.

Aristotle, in his studies on human nature, defines mankind as the rational, political animal, that is, we are social animals, dependent on each other, with the unique abilities to learn and to choose. Thus, to be human is to discover truth and to choose good, in community with each other.

Science is therefore, by its nature, an essential expression of humanity, by which we seek out knowledge and do so by building on the work of predecessors, collaborating with others, and preparing the way for future endeavors.

With graceful serendipity, science itself has confirmed Aristotle’s theory. As we learn more about the human form, we discover more and more that evolution has gifted us with the perfect body to express our rationality and sociability.

For example, biochemist Michael Denton points out that complex speech requires both the rationality to form complex, abstract ideas and the physical attributes necessary to communicate these ideas to our fellow beings, not to mention the desire to do so.[8] And just as the mouth, tongue, and vocal folds are necessary to express rationality, the hand is the perfect tool to act upon it.[9] Even the size of the human body promotes rationality, being large enough to handle fire and support a sufficiently large brain and eye but small enough to allow for quick reflexes.[10]

That mankind is rational and social, is made to be scientific, has been proven by the very pursuit the theory encourages! To be human is to be scientific, and the science of rocketry and space exploration is no different, indeed is perhaps the most human of our scientific pursuits.

Lacking the scientific resources of our day, for Aristotle, the physical sign of rationality was man’s uprightness, that we are made to have our feet on the ground and our heads looking up to the stars. And in his hierarchy of rational knowledge, he most highly valued the theoretical sciences (physics and math) and finally philosophy (knowledge for its own sake).

How integral to humanity, then, would he have considered the literal pursuit of the stars, and the knowledge they yield, through the application of the theoretical sciences? Space exploration is the marriage of science and philosophy, two of humanity’s most noble pursuits—I am no Aristotle, but I imagine that he would have placed space exploration at that intersection point, right between math and philosophy.

Since its conception, rocketry and space travel have been frequently attacked as impractical and a waste of resources. And, truly, we do not need to travel to space to survive from day to day.

But since when has humanity been satisfied with mere survival? We are meant to live—to choose to learn and explore and dream. As the great rocket scientist Wernher von Braun explained, the motivation for space exploration “lies rooted not in whimsy but in the nature of man . . . in the basic makeup of man as God wanted him to be.”[11]

The final frontier does not belong to the past, nor the future, nor to fiction, but to here and now. It does not belong merely to the pilots, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, physicists who dream and work for it day by day. It belongs to—and is dependent on—us all and will succeed only in like measure to the sense of wonder, the passion, and the support we give to it.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce,” Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, published March 19, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon (Penguin Books 2007), 213.

[4] n.a., “All Time Top Ticket Selling Movies,” Ultimate Movie Rankings, n.d.

[5] Will Thorne, “TV Ratings: Super Bowl LIV Draws 102 Million Viewers, Up a Fraction on 2019,” Variety, February 3, 2020.

[6] Chaikin, 546.

[7] SpaceX can be found here.

[8] Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (New York, NY: Free Press, 1998), 239–40.

[9] Denton, 241.

[10] Denton, 242–4.

[11] Wernher von Braun, quoted by Bob Ward in Dr Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 217.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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