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Boldly Going Nowhere

Now, space exploration is grand but it’s hard to argue that it’s a pressing priority in times of fiscal difficulty. And committing billions simply so a handful of astronauts can see a pretty picture of the earth seems a reasonably extravagant use of the public purse. For that matter, if the idea is that visiting Mars represents a triumph of the human spirit and mankind’s boundless curiosity then the nationality of the astronauts doing the exploring can’t matter very much except in terms of national chest-swelling… ~Alex Massie

Massie is answering this post, in which one Jeffrey Anderson complains that Obama is insufficiently willing to waste taxpayer money on fruitless exercises in sending a handful of people to uninhabitable, dead worlds. For good measure, he puts in a plug for all the jobs these useless programs provide that are now in jeopardy. Just so we’re clear, stimulus spending is unnecessary and wasteful unless it goes to the Pentagon or NASA to be frittered away in more dramatic fashion.

Anderson finds Krauthammer’s 10 year-old call for a return to space exploration worth citing. For whatever reason, Krauthammer has been preoccupied with the limitations of our space program for years. It seems that every year he has to register a complaint that we are not living out the dream of Airplane! 2. The long article for The Weekly Standard from ten years ago was just the fullest expression of this.

Perhaps nothing else captures Krauthammer’s imagination like outer space, which he dubbed “an arena for splendid, strenuous exertion.” If there is one thing that runs through all of Krauthammer’s writings, it is the longing to have government led by willful men who will impose heavy, unnecessary burdens on the public to engage in projects of collective self-glorification. Apparently it brings back memories of the good old days when the government mobilized massive resources to embark on large-scale projects of minimal benefit to the public. Of course, absent competition from the USSR and the associated desire to demonstrate American technical abilities, there would have been little or no interest in the program and similarly little political support for massive government outlays to pay for it. If there had not been some strained geopolitical argument for the space program, it would probably have never been developed as much as it was.

Krauthammer’s explanation always comes back to questions of will and resolve. This is his constant and favorite theme. In the 2000 article, he asked plaintively, “Where is the national will to explore?” In reply I would answer, “What is to be gained by exploring that anyone should want to do it?” Let’s understand something about exploration here on earth: the reason that governments subsidized overseas expeditions during the 15th and 16th centuries was to find trade routes, markets, resources and sources of revenue. Space exploration might theoretically offer access to untapped natural resources, but acquiring and transporting these resources would be prohibitively expensive and absolutely not cost-effective. As far as anyone knows, there is no one with whom we could trade even if we could reach them in a reasonable amount of time. There are no habitable worlds within the practical range of our spacecraft, so there is not even a realistic argument for promoting human colonization of other planets. There is no definable public interest in returning to the moon, much less sending some poor souls on a long, dangerous journey to the frozen Red Planet. This is why advocates for moon and Mars landings are reduced to appealing to nostalgia and sentiment.

Krauthammer’s argument took more than a few odd turns along the way. At one point, he lamented the inward orientation of modern culture and wrote:

The “Seinfeld “era is not an era for Odyssean adventures.

Mind you, the Odyssean adventures recorded in the epic poem were a series of disasters visited upon a hubristic man whom Poseidon wished to punish for his arrogance and presumption. That doesn’t exactly seem like an encouraging example to cite when urging Americans to set out on journeys into space.

The best part is when Krauthammer began attacking skeptics of space exploration as interplanetary McGovernites and “earth-firsters” (no, really!). This reminds us that this urge to put men on the moon and Mars remains bizarrely tied into the obsession with projecting power ever farther outward. Just as there is usually no good argument for U.S. involvement in the affairs of so many other countries, Krauthammer showed that there really has not been any good argument for an ambitious space program in a very long time. He wants to know: how can we not be moved by “the grandeur of the enterprise”? I have a better question: why should we expend our resources on an enterprise simply because its scale is impressively large? Oh, yes, “because it is there.” That’s very compelling, very persuasive stuff.

Apparently, Anderson believes this is the sort of thinking that the administration should be embracing. Fortunately this is another instance when the administration is capable of recognizing and eliminating unnecessary, wasteful spending. Scrapping the moon and Mars missions is similar to the cancellation of the missile defense program in central Europe in that it is an attempt to avoid frittering away resources on completely unnecessary projects of dubious value. As with that decision, this one has provoked much the same irrational reaction, complete with weepy nostalgia for Cold War Presidents who have been out of office for decades and Cold War projects that have no place in the modern world.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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