Reach For The Stars

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Reach For The Stars

by Ari Armstrong, February 3, 2003

There is nothing more pressing for the human race than that we establish permanent settlements in space.

The short-term goals are three-fold: establish large, economically self-sufficient space stations orbiting around Earth, settle the Moon, and settle Mars. From there, people can move deeper into the solar system and, eventually, colonize other solar systems as well. In some future century, barring some near-future catastrophe, the population of Earth will be vastly outpaced by the total human population.

Chances are good that eventually a large meteor will smash into the Earth. In that event, space colonization will be the savior of the race. If the Earth is destroyed completely, at least people will carry on elsewhere. Hopefully, any such event can be prevented by new space technologies. It's also possible that an on-planet disaster, such as the volcanic explosion of Yellowstone, could be rendered a less serious risk by space ventures.

Space exploration is important for technological and industrial advancement. It's necessary for the advancement of the human soul. The last new frontier brought about the greatest experiment in governance yet devised. There's something about the frontier that inspires the nobility, the romantic heart, the triumph of human kind.

For libertarians, the expanses of space hold the promise of the next evolution in human social relations. Governance by the initiation of force may, in space, become a relic of more barbaric ages.

While the "space bug" infects different people in different ways, it brings with it a set of common symptoms: unbridled optimism, a sense of wonder and profound spirituality, and a more mature perspective. It is a technology "on the leading edge of life," as lyricist Neil Peart puts the matter in "Countdown," a 1982 song about the Columbia space shuttle.

The seven crew members of Columbia gave their lives to advance space exploration. All of them saw the Earth from the vantage point of space. To them, what mattered is individual achievement. Up there, men and women, Israeli and Indian, black and white worked as a team to advance the causes of the whole human race. The people of the Earth salute you.

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Criticism of Nasa's program is appropriate. I'm sure reams of criticism from various quarters will be forthcoming. However, it's important to look to the facts and interpret them fairly, rather than merely allow the tragedy to reinforce already-held beliefs.

Nasa has had a lot of successes as well as a few failures. No machine functions flawlessly all the time. This is important context.

From one perspective, the crash suggests the need for more government funding for Nasa. The state space agency needs to hire more technicians and begin working on the next generation of space vehicle.

Libertarians, of course, take the opposite view. Space exploration and settlement is not the proper task of government, meaning those goals should be left entirely to market enterprises.

Libertarians have some pretty good economic reasons for their views. Political activities tend to be driven by, well, politics, rather than by the stated goal. Because government programs are funded through taxes taken forcibly from the citizens, those programs are less accountable. Special interest groups tend to fight for the forcible redistribution of wealth to their own advantage -- at the expense of the general economy. On the other hand, market projects tend to be more accountable and more competitive.

The fact that libertarians critique the social structure in which the current space program operates does not at all diminish their respect for the astronauts who dedicate their talent and energy to Nasa.

Libertarians sometimes make too simple a case against the state. The recent crash is not in itself an indictment of the government program per se. I suspect a market program would generate even more failures -- though it would also generate far more successes. Surely statists would use any failure to argue for the renationalization of the industry. The libertarian argument is not that the market is always perfect and the state is always terrible, but rather that the market tends to function significantly better than the state.

The tax-funded space program arguably supplants market approaches, which must rely on voluntary contributions (either through investment or charity). Surely the fact that government at all levels spends upwards of half the total available resources dampens economic progress. Libertarians are right to ask the government to at least not hamper market programs that might compete with Nasa.

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Libertarians sometimes wrongly believe they may not properly exhort their fellows to change their behavior toward more productive ends. Libertarianism is the view that social arrangements should be conducted on a voluntary basis, not the view that whatever people want to do is automatically good. Indeed, the whole libertarian project is based on the notion that we should seek to persuade others to change their attitudes and behaviors with respect to governance.

Thus, libertarians may also appropriately encourage people to be more concerned with technological advances, including space exploration. Health technology and energy production are also fields in need of new breakthroughs.

The average American spends an absurd amount of time wasting away in front of the television. Imagine what would happen if even half that time were devoted to tutoring children in science and math or otherwise furthering important goals. Americans also tend to spend a lot of resources in crassly materialistic ways. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm neither a puritan nor an ascetic. I love my leisure time, I even love Las Vegas, the epicenter of crass materialism. But I also think a lot of people tend to strike the wrong balance.

I'm not going to try to sell the space program on the grounds that it is something "higher than yourself" or something that will somehow assure global harmony. I do believe, however, the promise of space calls us to find the best within us and do something with our lives that matters.

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