If a telescope assembles itself in space and no one hears it, did it really make a sound?
A few weeks ago, 25 years after work on it began, the James Webb Space Telescope finally deployed. Having precisely aligned its 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirror segments, the telescope will now travel well beyond the moon’s orbit in order to pursue its mission: to see farther into the past than we ever have before, studying the universe around the dawn of time. This is pretty cool. But it doesn’t seem like anyone really cares.
Maybe it’s asking too much for people to get excited about telescopes, which are much nerdier and much less cool than rockets and space stations. And maybe it’s historical revisionism to think we were ever all that into space in the first place. After all, even in the supposedly space-crazy 1960’s, public support for NASA almost never went above 50%, with a majority usually saying our money would be better spent on other things. That’s the same sentiment I often hear today. As a spokesperson for the 2016 Sanders campaign put it, “Bernie supports NASA’s mission, but only once the needs of Americans are met first.” Newt Gingrich promised a moon colony in his 2012 campaign, and look where that got him.
This disdain for space exploration is one of the most depressing trends in modern-day leftism. It’s made worse by the fact that many who’d have our government pull back from space oppose private space ventures too, ignoring the contradiction: space is too important to be left to private hands, but also, our government has better things to do. I’m not denying that private space exploration today is basically just a billionaire dick-measuring contest. But many great accomplishments had their origins in the phallic insecurities of powerful men.
It’s hard to argue that the $10 billion it cost to get this telescope working is better spent taking photos of space than, say, feeding the hungry. But I reject the framing that says we have to choose. Not only is it possible to pursue multiple grand projects at once, it’s actually often easier than it is to attempt only one. Think about how you’re never more attractive than when you already have at least one promising romantic prospect. The same principle applies here. Success begets success; accomplishing one great thing sustains our belief in our ability to do the next one. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Great Society and the moon landing both happened in the same decade. After all, ending poverty seems hard, but can it really be harder than visiting the fucking moon?!
Our lack of excitement about space is a symptom of a broader malady: our inability to imagine extraordinary futures. Hell, we can’t even conjure imagined futures that are just normal levels of bad. We fret about the end of American democracy, a new Covid superstrain, a climate apocalypse that renders the earth uninhabitable. But these visions only obscure the likelier risks: that democracy will survive, but continue to perform poorly; that endemic Covid will layer our lives in low-level misery for years to come; that moderate climate change will make everything worse even as it allows our lives to continue mostly onwards.
Perhaps we fall prey to this kind of thinking because in an almost perverse way, the worst possible outcomes are the most exciting. Life would be horrible in an apocalypse, sure, but it would also (we imagine) be suffused with a deeper meaning. The end of the world as we know it would bring some pretty serious problems, but at least they’d be totally unlike our current problems. We’d join intoxicating new cults, have dangerous new romances, feel an adrenal thrill as we fought for survival across the barren landscape. And we’d enjoy the pleasurable vindication of our worst fears having come true. Our lives would suck, but on the plus side, we’d have seen it coming.
I’m drawn to these visions myself—I enjoyed Station Eleven as much as the next guy. But I’m also drawn to space exploration, precisely because it’s such a fundamentally optimistic act. When we peer into the cosmos, we search for answers to the deepest questions about ourselves. These questions almost certainly don’t have answers, but there’s something noble in asking. And implied in our search are some other beliefs: that we can push the limits of our knowledge, that the pursuit of that knowledge is in itself worthwhile, that we won’t just ruin whatever we discover. The pessimists might be right, but if the apocalypse does hit, saying “I told you so” is only going to get you so far.
Yours in looking up at the moon,