June 9, 2012

My dislike of astronauts, part three...

[NOTE: Speaking of space, Rand Simberg writes: Only seven shopping days left until my Kickstarter project on space safety must be funded. I still need about $2800 by next Friday afternoon. Pass the word, via Twitter or whatever....

This is a worthy project. Part of the stagnation of our space efforts is due to an extreme emphasis on safety by cautious bureaucrats. He's asking for $10 (or more) contributions, and I'll do one. (With a twinge of bitterness, 'cause no one will ever kickstart my book.) Rand inspired my space thoughts long ago, and I owe him a debt. Here's a sample I saved from 2002. Read!]

UPDATE: This project is funded! Cool

Now, to the post...

Again, I don't really dislike astronauts. Just their symbolism. And for this yet another disjointed post, I start yet again with a quote from Terry. If he didn't exist I'd have to invent him! Terry wrote:

"Four reasons a nation might make this investment [in space] are national defense, scientific advancement, practical applications, and national prestige."

So, for which of those reasons did the federal government subsidize the building of the transcontinental railroads? Hmm? None of them, really. The reason, the goal, was to settle the west. And part of the same package was the Homestead Act, which subsidized settlers with free land. And the goal was further subsidized by the US Army, which fought the Indians who impeded settlement.

And underlying this goal of settlement was faith in the American people. Give the people opportunities, says the theory, and they will do great things. That's what Americans have traditionally thought.

But over the course of the 20th century a new idea slowly wormed its way into control. And that was the idea that elites, embodied in government, can do great things. That's how European nations have always worked, and it is a very congenial idea if you happen to fancy yourself as a member of the elite. You could also say it was the turning of America from a country into a nation, a development I despise. [Do kindly read my piece: I'm not a "nationalist".]

And it was an insidious idea, one that often produced attractive results, and often mimicked traditional American thinking, so it was able to infiltrate its way into our minds. That is, I suggest, the underlying problem with Terry's comments. He may be right, and I may be wrong, about the economics of space. Perhaps space will be up to government for the next century. But I'm seeing more clearly as I write about this, that the real issue to me is, is America a sort of "collective entity?" Or is she an assemblage of free men?

If the first theory is true, then when NASA sent astronauts to the Moon, "WE" had done something great. If the second theory is true, then Apollo, cool as it was, was just a precursor. A curtain-raiser. And the real story will begin when Americans start homesteading the Moon, or doing similar things.

Astronauts are for me a symbol of the first theory. They are a symbol of the idea that government accomplishes things, and us ordinary couch-potato Americans are spectators, basking in reflected glory.

I'm perfectly happy with government doing most of the spending for space at this point, if it's necessary. The real question is, where are we going? The GOAL should be for government to gradually get out of the way, as Americans find more ways to live in space, and make money off of space. And cheaper ways to get into space.

In Rick Pearlstein's excellent book about the Goldwater movement, Before the Storm, he enjoys pointing out that the Goldwater family fortune originally came from selling supplies to the Army in Arizona. With the implication that this somehow undercut Goldwater's message of small government and free markets. I would reply, "So what?" Arizona could not have been settled without long tough military campaigns. That's the proper job of government. The difference was that everyone looked forward to the day when the Army could mostly leave, and the people get on with building a state.

Today's fake-liberals would look at the Army as a wedge, to start gathering more and more federal control of everything in Arizona. They look at everything as a wedge. "Never let a crisis go to waste."

[The picture has nothing to do with current happenings. It's an illustration by John Schoenherr, for the book Mission Of Gravity, by Hal Clement. Found here.]

Posted by John Weidner at June 9, 2012 3:10 PM
Weblog by John Weidner