This week America’s last space shuttle landed for the last time. There will be no genuine replacement. NASA hoped to replace the shuttle with Orion, capable of traveling to the Moon and Mars. But the Orion program was first scrapped, then revived as a spacecraft supposedly useful for low orbit and Mars, but not the Moon. This makes little sense, and anyone with any policy experience can tell that the lunar and Martian projects are both going to be scrapped for the foreseeable future.
I don’t want to give either NASA or the Space Shuttles themselves too much undeserved praise. I realize that the space program’s initial political goals were just as petty as those of the anti-space program people today: get there before the commies do. And the Space Shuttles themselves were ostentatious wastes of money: lumbering behemoths that pioneered all manner of important space travel concepts except for the most important one of all, testing the potential for manned flight beyond low Earth orbit.
Nevertheless, the effective ending of the American manned space flight program is highly symbolic. It is symptomatic of an age when every possible vision of collective progress is being ruthlessly stamped out by those who tell us we can no longer afford such frivolities, and would be better off anyways as individual consumers unsaddled by taxes, even while nominally conservative but actually kleptocratic governments build up giant deficits which will have to be paid off through tax increases and while steady economic growth makes us as a people wealthier than we have ever been.
It’s worth asking why, despite being richer than ever before, it can also be true that we “just can’t afford to do big things anymore.” Why, in both good times and bad, the public purse is equally so strained that there is no room left in it for sweeping projects or even just a little compassion. Why, at a time when our knowledge and capabilities are greater than ever before, the national newspapers can seriously argue that the only important questions worth asking are which taxes to cut and which programs to slash.
In the end this cheerful malaise is simply the herald of permanent cultural decline. I am not sure whether some other culture will arise elsewhere or whether humanity as a whole will end up caught in the same net. But either way, the slow, agonizing death of Western culture will be a certainty if we are unable to maintain even a moderately functional space program. If nothing else, the next major asteroid impact will do us in. But at least we and our descendants will enjoy low taxes until then, right?Tweet