Life and Death in Outer Space

by Jonathan Wallace

The explosion of the Columbia last February was mourned by a chorus of voices saying that human space exploration is useless, expensive, fatal, an invitation to meaningless tragedy. Some think that there is nothing to be done or found in space. Others say that there is nothing which cannot be done or found by robots and satellites, that there is no reason to risk people in space.

I disagree. As I have said before, the human venture into space is a deeply creative and psychological endeavor; it is an early exploration, the mad wandering of a Balboa, not the late stage rational engineering of a Union Pacific railroad. When you ask why we will go to the planets (and later the stars, if we can), you are using language to question a human urge deeper than language. You might as well ask why humankind, born in Africa, wandered as far as the frozen and inhospitable lands near the North Pole. The only answer is, because that's what we critters do.

I would like to see it happen because I would have loved to go there myself. I think now that I will never have the chance, because it will not happen in my lifetime. My second thought, when the Challenger blew up in 1986, was that the death of the Schoolteacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe, would postpone the carriage of non-crew civilians for just enough years that I would miss it. I mourned that loss almost as much as that of the Challenger crew.

Even if I can never go, I would like to live and die still believing that we will go. I am not ignorant that this opens a can of worms. I suppose (subject for a good alternative history science fiction story) that if the technology had existed in the 1400's, there would have been voices saying that it was too dangerous to send men and women to the "new world", lets send automatons instead. Our arrival here was a deeply confused and violent story of endurance, heroism and mass murder, and our travel anywhere else, if we encounter life there, is likely to be just the same. I hardly dare to hope we will soon reach the level where we can travel without killing. In the short run, I take solace in the fact that there does not seem to be life anywhere where it is now physically possible for us to go; we will be drawing on tabulas rasas.

Our problems here mean that we will best guarantee our own survival if we are not all on this planet, if there are little self-sustaining pockets of humanity elsewhere.

Behind the chorus of loud voices shouting that space doesn't make sense, you can hear some poignant thoughts murmured: that we are very frail and that it is too far to go, that every drop of human blood is precious and that we are poor and no longer have the resources to build new shuttles as the old ones die.

I hardly know what to make of this. It seems to me that if we want to live in outer space, we have to be prepared to die there. There are many millions of us who have decided to continue living in New York City despite September 11, despite the latest airplane crash or ferry disaster. If we are to go to space we will have to endure worse disasters still, and many of them, and yet just keep going, in greater and greater numbers until we blot out our losses. The disappearance of the entire Roanoke Colony in 1587 didn't dissuade others from coming to the American continent.

However, before I get too sanguine about the deaths of the astronauts, its important to focus also on the fact that they were killed by a culture of willful stupidity at NASA. While we must come to accept death as the price of exploration, that does not demand that we accept negligence and unnecessary losses. When Apollo Thirteen began to fail, masses of brilliant scientists on the ground were brainstorming with the crew to invent solutions to return the capsule to Earth. And succeeded in doing so. When the pictures at the Columbia's take-off indicated that a piece of foam or ice from the booster had hit the shuttle, the controlling minds at NASA refused to think about it, or to let anyone else do so, even cancelling requests made by subordinates for military photographs that would show any damage to the shuttle in greater detail. The statement afterwards that there was nothing we could have done even if we knew, is neither an excuse or even an explanation. It borders on criminal.

I relate the culture of vanity, of willful indifference to truth, to that of risk aversion and willful frailty.

In my childhood, I believed that this country was strong and invincible. In retrospect, I think the adrenaline rush produced by victory in World War II lasted well into the Vietnam years. I studied the history of the world war and concluded that victory was not based on strategy or military intelligence; it went to the country which in the end had the greater financial resources, manufacturing capacity and population, the country which could lose the most people and machines and still continue. Our successful race to get to the moon by 1969 confirmed that we could accomplish anything we decided to do.

Somewhere along the way, that self-image of the robust and wealthy country has been replaced by the idea of a frail invalid, a country which no longer has the capacity to go to the moon, which will continue flying the aging hulks of the shuttle fleet until each explodes and we have none left, a nation which no longer has the resources to go to the moon, which cannot even afford Medicare or railroads. Its hard, in a time when the culture is overwhelmingly inward-looking and risk averse, to determine how much of this is merely psychological, how much is the exaggeration of journalists and pundits, and how much is real. I would hate the human epitaph to be "They couldn't afford to go to the planets."

Whether we are really frail or are willing ourselves into becoming so is almost (but not completely) irrelevant. A self-fulfilling prophecy is just as accurate, once self-fulfilled, as a true insight or moment of precognition.

All I can say is, that I am glad the Chinese have decided to pick up the torch, to begin a space program and to go to the moon. Perhaps it will stir us, over time, to compete with them, as the Cold War was our principal motivation to get to the moon by '69, before the Russians did. But even if we are now too fragile and inward to jump into the race, I will be glad if the Chinese go, and there are humans on the moon again.