One of the four panels I am on at Netroots Nation focuses on developing a progressive space policy (it is today at 3:00 p.m. central time). On this panel, I have been specifically tasked with explaining why the netroots should care about space policy. Now, personally I think the netroots is geeky enough that many of us already do care about space policy, at least in so much as how it relates to the shaky alliance between the rebel cylons and the humans.
Still, since I am never one to turn down an easy task, in the extended entry I offer three reasons why the progressive movement should take space policy seriously.
Space is already part of our national infrastructure. As wonderful and amazing as they were, the Apollo moon missions also had a negative side effect on the image of the space program. The space program was viewed as amazing--wow, we can send people to the moon!--but also entirely unproductive (wow! There is really nothing to do on the moon!). This is unfortunate, because there are many, far less visible ways in which the space program is directly connected to our national infrastructure. Five months ago, a commenter at Matthew Yglesias's blog presented this case succinctly and clearly:
But apart from reliable weather forecasts, perfect navigation, cheap worldwide phone services, search and rescue, environmental imaging, forest fire monitoring, arms reduction verification, sixty-channel television, discovering the origin of the Earth and Moon, and vastly increasing our knowledge of the solar system and the rest of the Universe, what has space travel ever done for us?
If you worry about bridges collapsing or leeves breaking, you should also worry about maintaining the many important parts of our national infrastructure that are in outer space. The space program is essential to our telecommunications infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure, our educational infrastructure, our diplomatic infrastructure, and our meteorological infrastructure. The space program is no more useless pork than our highway system is useless pork. In all likelihood, everyone reading or hearing this will interact with space-based infrastructure on at least three different occasions today. Maintaining and improving the space program is part of maintaining and improving all areas of our national infrastructure.
Cheap, Bloodless National Glory: A February 2007 Gallup poll asked Americans to rate the best President of the United States of all time. The top six presidents, according to the poll were, in chronological, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. With the exceptions of JFK and Clinton, the other four Presidents were best known for winning one of the four major American military conflicts: the war of independence (Washington), the civil war (Lincoln), world war two (FDR), and the cold war (Reagan). Clinton certainly made the list because he is the most recent President who didn't suck. Kennedy, by contrast, largely made the list because of his achievement with the space program, specifically for jumpstarting the drive to put a man on the moon.
Other than winning wars, the space program is the only other proven means to achieve a national consensus on greatness in America. Now, as progressives, the choice between achieving national glory through war, or achieving through space, isn't even a choice. Hell, given the vast difference in the amount of blood and money at stake in each, it really shouldn't even be a choice for Americans of any political persuasion. If we can become the first nation to develop a permanent moon base, or travel to Mars, or discover life on an extra-solar planet, or construct a cheap-space travel superstructure such as a space fountain or a space elevator, as a nation we will have achieved a milestone in human history equal to that achieved by any other nation in history. And, with the space program, we can do that sort of thing for only about 0.2%-0.3% of our national economy, not to mention virtually no casualties, civilian, military or otherwise.
Space Is Progressive. One of the main reasons that I prefer the term progressive to the term conservative is that it draws a direct contrast: conservatives look to the past, while progressives look to the future. Conservatives view the ideal of society as existing in a past golden age, while progressives view the ideal society as never having existed, but being a future state toward which we are working. The space program, by its very nature, is a part of the progressive ideological and cultural ethos.
By pushing the limits of human understanding on our place in the galaxy, the pace program is inherently progressive. Answering fundamental questions such as the origin of the universe through the WMAP satellite, or determining whether we are alone in the universe through new exoplant discovery telescopes, the space program helps to answer fundamental questions of humanity in non-dogmatic, reality-based ways.
By pushing the limits of human engineering capability, the space program is also progressive.
By creating an increased sense of connectedness, such as the important ways in which the first pictures of the entire Earth from outer space helped launch the environmental movement, the space program is progressive.
And, if none of these reasons convince you that the space program is fundamentally progressive and connected to the expansion of humanity, keep in mind that if progressives don't care about space policy, then conservatives will destroy outer space in much the same ways they are destroying Earth. Excessive militarization and corporatization is just as possible in outer space as it is on our home planet.
I know I need to flesh out the last bullet point a bit more, but hopefully you found this enjoyable and convincing anyway.
Update: I fleshed out point three during the panel. The idea is that the space program, properly developed, can turn into a progressive feedback loop in terms of increasing environmental awareness, increased education funding and student interest, and also in terms of an increased sense of global interconnectedness.