Why Progressives Should Care About Human Destiny in Space

This appeared in the August 10, 2007 edition of AlterNet.org, while a condensed version appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 8, 2007.


Barbara Morgan’s journey into the cosmos sheds light on the importance of the space program.

Everybody knows that whether it’s lavish Broadway spectacle or humble community theater, the lead actors have understudies. If Hamlet, Sky Masterson or Galinda the Good Witch come down with laryngitis a couple of hours before curtain, some brave soul needs to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to step into the breach.

But perhaps not everybody knows that astronauts, too, have “understudies.” If Mission Specialist No. 4 comes down with laryngitis a couple of days before launch, NASA doesn’t want to scrub a flight after years of training by the crew and all the preparation that goes into every mission by thousands more on the ground.

The crew of the Challenger, which perished on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds after liftoff, had backups. Christa McAuliffe, who was selected to be the first “schoolteacher in space,” was herself backed up by another schoolteacher. Her name was Barbara Radding Morgan, who taught elementary school in Fresno, Calif., and was then 34 years old.

On Wednesday evening, more than 21 years later, Ms. Morgan, now 55, went up on the space shuttle Endeavor as NASA’s first “educator in space” to continue the mission that Ms. McAuliffe began two long decades ago. And she’s doing it from the same place where McAuliffe sat — in the middle of the lower deck.

Morgan and the rest of the Endeavor’s seven-member crew will be spending about two weeks at the international space station to continue a construction project that will include replacing a gyroscope, attaching a new truss segment to the station and delivering 5,000 pounds of cargo.

Many of the educators who had competed with Morgan and McAuliffe to become the first teacher in orbit, were in Florida to watch the liftoff. Even June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of the Challenger’s commander, was present for the launch.

“The Challenger crew — my husband Dick Scobee, the teacher Christa McAuliffe — they would be so happy with Barbara Morgan. They’d be excited for her, they’d be proud of her and her following through with the mission for the teacher to fly in space,” said Scobee Rodgers, founding chairman of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

But why go to all the trouble to launch a now 55-year-old woman into the cosmos? What is the meaning of Barbara Morgan? As we approach our 50th anniversary as a spacefaring civilization (Sputnik was launched into orbit by the late USSR on Oct. 4, 1957), what is the space program for?

And why should progressives, with a full menu of more immediate causes on our activist plates, care about this one?

I heard one answer last month, in Kansas City, at the commemoration of the centennial, on 7/7/7, of the birth of perhaps the greatest apostle of human destiny in space that humanity has yet produced — Robert A. Heinlein. His majestic Time Enough for Love told the life story of Lazarus Long, one of the most charismatic characters in 20th century literature. Setting the scene in the year 4272, Heinlein wrote, “We are no longer able to make a reasoned guess at the numbers of the Human Race, nor do we have even an approximate count of the colonized planets. The most we can say is that there must be in excess of two thousand colonized planets, in excess of five hundred billion people. The colonized planets may be twice that number, the Human Race could be four times that numerous. … Pioneers care little about sending records to the home office; they are busy staying alive …”

4272. That’s not so far off. It’s just a little bit longer in the one direction than Caesar and Christ are in the other. But that’s what the voyages of Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan are really about. All of us now alive, on behalf of all those not yet alive, have only just barely embarked on that endless expedition. That is the journey, for the Human Race, toward immortality.

What does immortality have to do with progressive values? Conservatives, most fundamentally, are about the idea that individuals ought to devote their blood, tears, toil and sweat to pursuing their own individual interests … and leave it to other individuals to do the same. But if political progressives are about anything, we are about the idea that our lives are about something larger than ourselves. The idea that, as Michael Moore says in Sicko, we are not a “me society” but a “we society.” The idea that we have obligations and responsibilities not just to ourselves and our immediate families, but also to the community of the whole.

And that means ultimately not only the human community of the present moment, but also the community of our remotest ancestors and our distant descendants as well. Space is ultimately about our duties to generations beyond our own. “The greatest good for the greatest number,” said progressive giant Teddy Roosevelt, “applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction.”

A second core progressive value beckons to us from space as well. Progressives believe that our national citizenship must be accompanied by a global citizenship, that our allegiance to our nation stands alongside an allegiance to humanity, that our national patriotism must in the end be transcended by a planetary patriotism. We stand in the tradition of what the great psychologist Erik Erikson called an “all-human solidarity.” We see the first glimmerings of what the political scientist Robert C. Tucker calls an “ethic of specieshood.” We are the vanguard of what Voltaire called “the party of humanity.”

And space has already shown that it can serve as perhaps the single greatest engine of human unity.

On July 20, 1979, on the tenth anniversary of humanity’s first footsteps on the moon, Neil Armstrong was asked how he had felt as he saluted the flag up there. “I suppose you’re thinking about pride and patriotism,” he replied. “But we didn’t have a strong nationalistic feeling at that time. We felt more that it was a venture of all mankind.” (One wonders if any consideration was given, in the high councils of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, to having Armstrong and Aldrin plant not a flag of the United States on the moon, but a flag of Planet Earth.)

Many of the fortunate souls who have made it into Earth orbit (and the infinitesimal 27 who have left Earth orbit and ventured to the moon) have expressed remarkably similar sentiments.

“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries,” said the Saudi astronaut Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud. “The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.” “The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone,” said the Russian astronaut Aleksei Leonov, “our home that must be defended like a holy relic.” “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty,” said Edgar Mitchell, one of only 12 humans to have walked on the surface of another world. “You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'”

This is why the late Carl Sagan claimed that spaceflight was actually subversive. Although governments have ventured into space, Sagan observed, largely for nationalistic reasons, “it was a small irony that almost everyone who entered space received a startling glimpse of a transnational perspective, of the Earth as one world.”

Seeing our planet as a whole, apparently, enables one to see our planet as a whole.

Finally, space may someday deliver to us arguably the greatest progressive value of all. The ethic of human unity that space seems inevitably to engender may, down the road, ultimately engender permanent human peace as well.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, widely considered the greatest science fiction series ever constructed, are set much further down the road than Time Enough for Love — not 2200, but 20 or 25,000 years in the future. The Foundation’s universe contains several million colonized star systems and several quadrillion human beings, so widely dispersed that anthropologists debate which among the millions was humanity’s original sun. And yet, for all the extent, diversity and complexity of human affairs, humanity has managed to abolish war. The human race has forged itself into a single politically unified community — what Asimov calls a “Galactic Empire.” The unraveling of that community, and the reintroduction of war into human affairs, is the grand cataclysm that protagonist Hari Seldon and his compatriots, for seven epic novels, endeavor to prevent (or at least to mitigate).

How’s that for something toward which we on the left can aspire? Progressives insist that it is within the power of the human imagination to create enduring universal peace. We maintain that there can be a next step in the social evolution of our species. In the spring of 2003, many of us demonstrated against a preemptive, unilateral, illegal and very unwise war, the consequences of which we can still only dimly foresee. But for all of our efforts in the past four years to “end the war,” isn’t our deepest aspiration actually to “end war”?

Bertrand Russell taught us that the greatest moral imperative was this: “One must care about a world one will never see.” So in addition to all of our urgent work on all of our urgent struggles, progressives should consider joining and participating in the work of hardy and underappreciated space advocacy organizations like the Planetary Society, the National Space Society, the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation.

Perhaps the single best line of the Heinlein Centennial was uttered to us on an enormous video screen, from Sri Lanka, by 90-year-old Arthur C. Clarke, when he said, “Robert Heinlein will be revered by future generations. If any.”

Stephen Hawking, similarly, in remarks just before boarding his widely publicized zero-gravity airplane flight in April, said, “Life on Earth is at risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus. … I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”

And the Royal Astronomer Martin Rees, of Cambridge University, in his chilling 2003 book Our Final Hour , surveyed the litany of macro-dangers facing humanity (some natural but most of our own making) — asteroid impact, climate change, nuclear apocalypse, bioterror, nanotechnology spinning out of control, the enormous destructive potentials that can be unleashed today by just a few malevolent individuals. Then he delivered this astonishing verdict: “I think the odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.”

How such a forecast has failed to generate any political debate whatsoever — among progressives or anyone else — is surely a testament to the shallowness of our contemporary political conversation.

There are two responses that progressives might make to the challenges posed by Clarke, Hawking and Rees — and to the responsibilities passed on to us by Teddy Roosevelt. One is to confront those challenges head on, to focus upon not only Iraq and impeachment and the issues of the hour, but also the issues of the century, and to endeavor over time to perhaps alter Rees’ odds for the better. The other is to dedicate ourselves to the goal, however distant, of establishing the human race permanently beyond the cradle of its birth. First beyond our planet, then beyond our solar system, as we venture, slowly but inexorably, in tiny lifeboats afloat on an infinite sea, to live forever among the stars.

These twin undertakings, obviously, need not be mutually exclusive. After all, people who do everything possible to protect their health still take out life insurance policies. Unfortunately, the agendas of our politicians these days seem mostly about neither of these undertakings. The legacies of Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan, educators and astronauts, seem quite obviously about both.

Posted in Humanity's Future in Space