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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Or What's a Heaven For?

Why We Should Reach for the Stars
(c) 2013 by Tom King

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” – Robert Browning

Every time we have an event like this week's docking of the Dragon X capsule at the International Space Station, the comments sections of these reports get flooded with people who say we should junk the space program and take care of "problems at home" first.

The only flaw in that logic is that should we take that approach, we'd never go to space at all.  Jesus pointed out that "The poor you will have always..."  The idea that we must cure poverty before we do anything else is deeply held by many well-meaning people. Unfortunately, poverty is not completely curable with the technology that exists and with the state of the human race.  To cure poverty, mankind would have to be perfected and I don't believe that is possible in this world.   

The arrival of the computer age has had wonderful consequences.  We're deciphering the human genome. We're on the trail of a cure for cancer.  There is no evidence that piling more money onto the problem will help.  In the history of the world, great innovations often come from unexpected places. Man's obsession with exploration and learning has led him to stumble upon solutions for one problem that turn out to solve a thousand others.  The invention of the steam engine led to revolutions in transportation, new engines, flying machines and power plants which have extended human life and improved the quality of it.  Power technology has been misused as well - one of those problems a corrupt human race will always have since power attracts corruptible people.

The computer age, in addition to bestowing great benefit has also had an unfortunate effect.  Computers, because of their mathematical and data storage capabilities have drawn the devoted attention of society's bean-counters.  Today's instant accounting distorts our vision and draws our attention to the immediate reward and to the manipulation of the "bottom line".  We look at graphs of daily profits instead of at our long term goals and our mission in life.  We look to the Earth and not to the stars for inspiration and purpose. We've become enamored of laws and data collection as our best tools to perfect mankind instead of looking to ideas and aspirations. That's all well and good if you believe man can be perfected in his current spiritual state.  I don't.

How unfortunate that when the computer age has also given us the ability to extend our reach literally by billions of miles, so many of us have turned our eyes from looking up toward the stars and, instead, are obsessed with the dirt at our feet. 

Perhaps, if we'd just reach up again toward the stars, we might find that our efforts to reach them may perhaps solve the problems we have that keep us Earthbound.  French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

My objection to the solve the problems of Earth-first or even America's problems first argument is that if we limit ourselves to only to fixing those things which are broken here, we will soon find ourselves over-whelmed trying to keep up with a planet rapidly breaking down. 

Remember, the experts have long predicted the world would collapse and billions would starve.  Instead, we've managed to feed ourselves despite dire predictions of mass starvation by futurists like Thomas Malthus.  Technology under the pressure of need, helps us to discover new ways to produce massive quantities of healthy food.  Starvation today is more a result of politics than it is any lack of food.  The discoveries that have kept us ahead of Malthus's predicted mass starvation, have come because people were looking for ways to make more money by raising crops more efficiently, more effectively and at lower cost. 

Capitalism has done more to feed the world than any political scheme to redistribute wealth.  Businessmen and scientists working for them have done more to improve healthcare, reduce disease, hunger and poverty than any politician or government ever has.

Which is why I am thrilled to see Space-X, Bigelow Aerospace and other private companies launching rockets, experimenting with space planes and looking for better ways to heave ourselves off the planet.  These efforts will inevitably lead to discoveries that benefit us all in ways we cannot imagine now.

I remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong stepped out upon the moon.  It was a powerful moment in the lives of people the world over.  It's time we put some more bootprints on the moon, if only to draw our eyes upward again. Upward is the direction we should be looking.

And for more reason than one....


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