The (former) space program

I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago about why I believe that manned spaceflight in general, and the moon landings in particular, are the greatest achievement of human civilisation to date. Rather than comment on everyone’s comments, I thought I’d write something down here instead. Importantly, my ideas about this may not be the same as yours, and that’s ok.

First things first – as Bed commented, we need to define our terms.  What is human civilisation? More importantly, what does greatest mean? We could argue for hours about this, so I’ll keep it simple. I consider human civilisation to be everything that has happened since the the mastery of fire, so that might take it back 200,000 years or more. No other animals use fire in remotely the same way that we do, so we’re alone in that club.

Speaking of terminology, some people objected to my use of “manned” as a potentially sexist term. I agree that it’s not perfect, but I’m not aware of any term in the English language that captures the same meaning and not hopelessly awkward. So I’ve stuck with manned, while fully acknowledging that numerous shuttle and Mir missions have included female members.

The gnarlier question is: what does “greatest” mean? Clearly there are as many ways of defining this as there are people, which is why I asked for comment. None of these are right or wrong necessarily, although they may display different focusses.

A couple of people mentioned various technological developments such as clean drinking water, vaccines and antibiotics. I think these are all excellent things, and from a public health point of view there is no question that they have been the biggest factors in increasing the human population and life expectancy over the whole of our history. Our very ability to achieve space missions probably relies on these medical innovations and the society that they have allowed to flourish. But I consider these to be foundational achievements which enable greater ones, not pinnacles in themselves. I think the development of written language is similar – a massive technological innovation which enabled many other subsequent ones. So when I talk about the “greatest” achievement, I probably think of it more as a summit of a mountain than a foundation of a building.

The main reason that I think that manned spaceflight is the greatest achievement of human civilisation is that it represents the ultimate expression of the human ability to shape our environment. Space and the moon are so completely hostile to life, especially human life, that we wouldn’t be able to last more than thirty seconds without our technology. The human species has spent the last half a million years shaping the world to meet our needs – escaping the earth entirely in order to live outside of it is a transcendent success. From the point of view of evolutionary fitness, our success as a species has been so profound as to allow us to step outside of the terrestrial environment entirely. For the teleologically inclined, being able to go from the development of agriculture to departure from the earth in about 350 generations is very impressive.

As Kyle pointed out, it’s a pity that the space program seems to have effectively ground to a halt. We went from the first satellites to humans on the moon in less than ten years… but that was forty years ago. We seem unable or unwilling to take the next step. That makes me sad because I hope we didn’t peak as a civilisation in the early 1970s. Part of the beauty of the space program was that it shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. That degree of focus and concentration may only be temporary, but to me it’s something to be celebrated.



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