On July 30, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched its robotic rover Perseverance from Cape Canaveral, Florida, scheduled to arrive at the Jezero Crater on planet Mars on February 21, 2021. Roughly the size of a private automobile, the six-wheeled vessel, among other capabilities, possesses a drill that can excavate small soil samples that may, via some future mission, find their way back to Earth. Its task is to investigate whether life ever did or ever could exist on Mars, and to help prepare for eventual human exploration. Chief Engineer Adam Steltzner triumphantly characterizes the work of the rover as “a very, very profound first step in our understanding of our place in the universe.” The total cost is about $2.5 billion.
To some degree like the United States Space Force organized this past December, NASA was founded in 1958 to institutionalize the perceived interest of the federal government in achieving a commanding presence in space, although with strictly peaceful and scientific objectives. The organization currently oversees about two hundred missions ranging from the Advanced Composition Explorer deciphering interstellar particles to the XMM-Newton satellite studying black holes, neutron stars, and other phenomena. The Mars exploration program, however, is strongly emphasized, with the official justification being that it “demonstrates our political and economic leadership as a nation, improves the quality of life on Earth, helps us learn about our home planet, and expands US leadership in the peaceful, international exploration of space.” For the scientists involved in the historic enterprise, and for many others inspired to pursue unanswered questions at university or in their careers, such benefits are genuine and often life-changing. But in this time of such profound domestic and international disorder, when it appears—though to different audiences for different reasons—as if the very foundations of the liberal tradition are threatened with collapse, it might be useful to attempt to separate acknowledged scientific advance from diversionary patriotic myth.
The apologists of outer space exploration tout their collective efforts as the supreme manifestation of human rationality: peaceful, non-partisan, inoffensive, and humanistic. But the historical reality is that its institutional origins are largely irrational, originating at the intersection of the early Cold War arms race, the mass hysteria of the Red Scare, and the utopian worship of technical progress that characterized the mid-twentieth century. These tendencies were not sufficiently resisted at the time, nor are they properly understood today.
The National Security Act of 1947 created the office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Advisor, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the United States Air Force. The newly minted Pentagon and CIA disbursed unquantifiable sums of public money to build up social sciences dedicated to understanding and preempting the intentions and capabilities of the Soviet Union. These included the discipline of economics, the “laws” of which were designed to patriotically demonstrate the superiority of American capitalism, and the discipline of political science with game theories and quantitative modeling to represent thermo-nuclear confrontation. Amid the frantic race for the hydrogen bomb, Dr. Wernher von Braun—the greatest rocket scientist of Nazi Germany who had unleashed his V-2 missile arsenal upon the advancing Allies—was recreated as the charismatic godfather of the American space program, developing the rockets to be used for the lunar landings. As a youth he had dreamt of voyages to other planets, and with the patronage of respectively the German Reich, the American government, and Walt Disney Studios felt he could achieve it. The RAND Corporation (established in 1948)—closely linked to the Air Force—and the Hudson Institute (established in 1961) were chartered as non-partisan but patriotic research centers during this time, with space exploration the main civilian expression of the frenzied technological contest with the USSR. The resulting warfare state based on relentless scientific and technical progress came to dominate the economy, pervert the educational system, and dictate terms to members of Congress. President Dwight Eisenhower solemnly warned in his farewell address, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex… [and] in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Space exploration was a position into which the United States government was simultaneously forced and frightened. In Robert Wise’s classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a human-alien accompanied by an impregnable battle-bot lands in Washington and demands global nuclear disarmament from a terrified population. Real Washington was if anything more schizophrenic at that time than the cinematic version, for upon the successful launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, Red Scared Americans of all sorts were heard to profess the impending triumph of communism and the destruction of American civilization, with Bolshevik hordes soon to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The resulting race to space, to the Moon, and beyond thus partially developed from the completely mistaken anxiety that the Russians would otherwise, somehow, succeed in overthrowing our representative institutions.
Finally, while ostensibly a strictly technical enterprise, American space exploration and travel have from the first been shrouded in a mystical significance, involving the strongest institutional expressions of the twentieth-century cult of scientific management apparent in authors such as Joseph Schumpeter, David Mitrany, or John Kenneth Galbraith, and in works of popular culture such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The implied thesis is that the conquest of space will revolutionize life on Earth, as celestial discoveries open the way to the solution of terrestrial problems. True to tradition, NASA contends that Martian exploration “improves the quality of life on Earth.” How so, for whom, or in what ways, specifically, would be excellent questions to pose. The same official communiqué asserts that planet Mars, “could someday be a destination for survival of humankind.” This statement is not only inherently preposterous but also a venal justification for the allotment of billions of dollars of the people’s money.
Given the above reframing of the issue, the question then becomes one of how, in a world of scarce resources, dangerous enemies, and aggrieved people, to most expediently pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. Specifically, is it sensible to spend billions on outer space travel amid national bankruptcy, grinding poverty, failing schools, destructive overdevelopment, and looming ecological disaster? Do the benefits of the potential collection of soil samples from the surface of Mars or from that of any other planet truly justify the enormous expense? Are the exploits of the Perseverance really likely to redefine our place in the universe? The reader may answer these questions as he or she sees fit. The central point is that they have for far too long gone unasked.