My job is to explore space. The work I do, day to day, involves figuring out how to get space probes to exotic parts of our Solar System, so that scientists can investigate the inner workings of the planets and flesh out their understanding of humans’ place in it.
One of the strangest things to me about my job is that I agree with almost none of the reasons popular in space media for why this is an important and worthwhile endeavor. National prestige? No, I would be happy to work with scientists who aren’t funded by the US government. Finding resources in space for us to exploit on Earth? Nope, not only is that not what science is doing but I think it would be ultimately unproductive. Inspiring the next generation to pursue STEM careers and fill a supposed “STEM gap?” Heck no — I was inspired to study STEM in order to explore space, not to help a tech company sell surveillance or to fill up jobs in the military-industrial complex.
I explore space, I want to explore space, because I want to be part of something greater than myself. I want my work to help build a monument of scientific achievement that will stand for generations. I want to reach, to dream, to aspire, to learn, and to create. I want to explore space for the same reasons an artist or a poet wants to do what they do.
I think people in my field are afraid to say that. The reason is, I suspect, because we fear the obvious rejoinder: why are you wasting time and resources on that when we have so many problems to solve here on Earth?
My answer has been that it’s not a binary choice: We can feed the hungry, and have poets. We can heal the sick, and have art. We can make a better life for people on Earth, and explore space. But more than that, I think it is part of the measure of a society what we aspire to do and create for tomorrow, not just how we react to the events of yesterday. That’s why I explore space, and why I think it’s important that we — our nation, our society — continue to explore space.
But looking back over the last few years, I have a problem.
I have been completely caught off guard, emotionally and intellectually, by the approach my society is actually taking.
We faced a national disaster in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we collectively decided, nah, we’re just not going to bother to do anything about this. A million people died as a result, most of them easily preventable deaths.
The looming crisis of catastrophic climate change is turning into a global disaster before our eyes, with wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and other events rapidly racking up body counts and property damage, threatening our way of life in the near future with everything from decreased production to reduced military effectiveness to food shortages to logistical challenges that will dwarf anything we saw in 2020, and we collectively decided, well, I guess you’ve just got to get what you can while you can. So much for the next generation.
Inequity is a scourge on our national economic effectiveness, not to mention inhumane to those experiencing it, and we have collectively decided, if the worst-off among us have no bread to eat, then it’s on them to find cake. Just so long as the rest of us can’t see them.
Madmen enter our schools with devices designed to make human bodies explode, kill innocent children and young adults, and our society has decided, oh, well, too bad, and we hold a moment of silence while we wait for the next one to happen. Meanwhile, we traumatize kids with intrusive security measures and drills that will remain ineffective so long as we keep fetishizing access to violence. The recurring Onion headline is so biting because it is an exact measure of the depth of our failure.
We are, to put it simply, no longer a nation that tries to solve its problems at all. What solution-oriented programs we have continue only on inertia, not because we are trying to improve the parts of our society that need attention. What aspirational efforts we have also seem to continue on inertia, not because of a national drive to be better. So here I am, attached to a vestigial aspirational effort and arguing that we could do both while our society around me is deciding to do neither.
We got here because one of America’s major political parties has spent decades pushing a message that boils down to the insistence that government should not solve problems, or heck, government should not do anything except for a few legacy activities that benefit the relatively privileged. As a result, we have built a system where we don’t help the sick, we don’t help the poor, we don’t plan for the future, we don’t create opportunities, we don’t innovate, we don’t address the root causes of crime or oppression, we don’t educate our kids, we don’t even keep our kids safe from harm. And these things seem to have become our national values, so that enough voters feel a patriotic and political obligation to continue not solving the problems that face all of us. Now, only those of us who started with money have a chance.
I fear for the future because we live in a nation where that same party can win most state and federal representation with less than half the vote, is actively working to secure power regardless of future vote outcomes, and is willing to deploy violence and intimidation if it doesn’t get its way. For a brief window, though, we have a chance to ask ourselves: Is this really the kind of society we want to be? We really want to be the society who rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic, because oh, well, this is what being ‘Merican is, and we don’t want to see the iceberg so we just won’t?
It didn’t used to be.
I wish we could aspire again.
I wish we could solve basic national problems again.
The fact that we have collectively decided not to is so frustrating to me because it cuts right to my self-image.
The only thing I know of to do in response is vote for Democrats, and press them to safeguard our democracy.
2 thoughts on “I don’t know what we want to be any more”
The movie “Don’t Look Up” was way more accurate than it had any right to be.
I feel this hard (and am so glad I subscribed to this RSS feed a decade ago!)
One of the things that surprised me most about the people involved in much of the 50s/60s space race was how much some of them, like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Borman, were solely motivated to defeat the USSR communists.
Our country has been successful when we can take “gut” desires like anti-communism and channel them into science. When we combine the nerds and the bros, instead of deciding that COVID is the price we must pay for freedom.
I’m not a politician and I don’t know how to turn it, except to say that it seems like its getting worse, and reason won’t do it. Haidt’s book “the righteous mind” goes into some of this – but its conclusions are not convenient when so much of our society today incentivizes harmful behaviors.