Future thinking needs a dose of cosmic pessimism if it’s to have any utility at all.
I recently spent a week at Ohio University in the verdant college town of Athens, lecturing at a NASA-sponsored summer program that trains students from around the world for careers in the space industry. Over several intense and lengthy sessions, my co-lecturer and I led a group of gridlocked students in an extended discussion of how the program might positively impact space exploration over the next 30 years.
Amidst talk of the economic and technical feasibility of asteroid mining operations and permanent moon settlements, the conversation would frequently circle back to a core issue: political and public engagement with space exploration has steadily been on the wane since the Space Age drew to a close in the early 70s. NASA’s funding, as a percentage of the US federal budget, peaked at 4.4% in 1966. Three years later, even as Walter Cronkite reported in a state of wonder that the crew of Apollo 11 had planted their feet and flag on the lunar surface, NASA’s share had already been halved. It’s been in slow decline ever since; today, it wavers around half a percent. Even this meager allocation – amounting to some $18 billion in 2015 – dwarfs the $5 billion current budget of the European Space Agency.
These facts lurked in the shadows of every discussion; boundless optimism for the future of space exploration – a central theme in the oeuvre of futurism – could only be maintained, it seemed, in spite of this inconvenient reality. The economic facts suggested that humanity’s tremulous attempts to reach into space had lost their visceral appeal among all but a tight-knit cadre of inveterate dreamers and industry insiders. As a supposed representative of the futurist community, I felt a kind of queasiness at my inability to muster a plausible story unfolding over the next thirty years that included anything like the milestones that appear on a space aficionado’s earnest wish list: established lunar colonies, an emergent asteroid mining industry, and consistent traffic between Earth and our closest planetary neighbor, Mars.
As part of the program’s itinerary, students and faculty had been invited to tour NASA’s Glenn Research Center facilities, located just outside Cleveland, a four-hour bus ride from our host institution. The bus ride was an opportunity for the students to set aside the animus that often builds in high pressure group projects and simply enjoy each other’s company. As for myself, I took some time to reflect on the disquiet about humanity’s relationship with the territories beyond our home planet that was settling in my mind. Why should it be that at the very moment the drama of human space exploration was reaching a crescendo in the 60s, we would begin, quietly and almost imperceptibly, to withdraw from the frontier?
The answer was so disheartening it was almost embarrassing to admit: space exploration – or, more precisely, its funding, administration, and agenda setting – has never had much to do with the spiritual and existential ambitions of humankind for freedom and adventure. The case for space exploration being driven by simple scientific curiosity fares little better. These motivations were froth on the wave compared to the forces that actually powered the Space Age.
For the Kennedy administration, the Apollo missions were a straightforward retort to the perceived technological superiority and increasingly bellicose military posturing of the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s hand had been forced; in the span of four years, the Soviets had launched the first orbital satellite and put the first human, Yuri Gagarin, in space, ominously signaling their ambitions by dubbing him cosmonaut: an explorer of the universe. On the ground, the US was still reeling from their humiliating defeat during the Bay of Pigs invasion at the hands of Castro’s Soviet-backed communist regime. Kennedy’s administration was less than four months old, and off to a shaky start.
In his Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs weeks after Gagarin’s history-making flight, Kennedy implored them to provide additional funds to the US Space Program so that they might meet the challenge set forth by what he routinely called “the adversaries of freedom” for supremacy in space. Kennedy endeavored to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, a recommendation that the Administrator of NASA, James E. Webb, had made to the President as recently as a month before Gagarin’s flight, and which was initially refused on the basis of cost.
It is disquieting to consider that the lofty and poetic ambitions of our species play second fiddle to the petty emotions and hubris that color the decisions of the powerful few, but there it is. Progress and innovation as the ephemeral and omnipresent drivers of history are among the great myths of our time. Like all myths, they protect us from the most uncomfortable of truths.
The morning after the bus ride, over a cold breakfast in a Cleveland hotel and still very much under the pall of my desultory thoughts, I fell into conversation with another of the instructors about humanity’s future in space. She was deeply involved in the commercial space tourism industry, and believed that experiencing Earth from space held the key to transforming humanity’s perspective of life on our planet and our place in the cosmos. Astronauts called it the Overview Effect: a sea change in personal awareness of the fragility and finitude of Earth’s existence against the backdrop of cold, unfeeling space, and an immediate need to preserve what we have through a united planetary will and effort.
She had heard that I was a futurist by trade, and seemed eager to pick my brain about the wonders that awaited us in space. Much to both her surprise and mine, I found myself telling her that, despite the transformative effects of spaceflight on an individual’s psyche, I expected our foreseeable future – collectively speaking – might be rather terrestrial in nature.
My comments were colored by the news that had been unfolding over the summer which signaled a resurgence of humankind’s most time-honored and innervating instincts: the marks of ethnic, religious, tribal, and nationalistic conflict were being scratched across the globe, upon the deserts of Syria, into the green countryside of Crimea, and throughout the streets of American cities great and small.
Our starry ambitions would always compete with these indefatigable, parochial concerns, and they wouldn’t always fare well. There was no reason to think that we would someday, as one, look up to the stars and awaken in simultaneity to another, greater destiny. We would explore space, surely. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves the perverse thought that this could ever be anything like a universal ambition, made possible by the final ascendancy of the better angels of our nature. Humans just weren’t made of that kind of stuff. The facts of our nature are every bit as much against us as is the cold, unfeeling void.
Her reaction mixed bemusement with disappointment. Clearly, she had expected that a conversation with a futurist would be an opportunity to engage in speculation about just how far humans could venture into the cosmos with our raw ambitions. Perhaps we could use long-term cryogenic chambers to hypersleep astronauts until they reached their destination decades from now. Better still, if we digitized the human brain, we could use lasers to transmit data, encoding our mind’s patterns to distant star systems to be reborn in silicon by self-assembling nanobots.
Today, these sorts of scenarios are the standard currency of future thinking, or at least what passes for it. Any futurist who has spent even a little bit of time steeped in the literature and conferences of techno-optimists can rattle off half a dozen of these technological solutions to human interstellar exploration that are so impressive sounding they disguise their complete superficiality. Breathlessly repeated, they breeze over distinction between logical possibility and actual plausibility as mere semantics, and barely steal a glance at the broader implications such technologies might have on human life, culture, and civilization.
Too many futurists confuse thought experiments with future thinking. With the former, the task is to build a logical contraption that attempts to demonstrate some belief about the world: that the mind and body are the same, or separate; that computers might someday be conscious, or always remain unconscious; and so on. With the latter, the task is to responsibly articulate some possible future state of the world in which we all live, replete with its fits and starts, disappointments and unforeseen consequences, displacements and usurpations.
This confusion does a great disservice to everyone who wonders about what the future might hold. Futurists ask us to imagine that the road to the future is a smooth and even ride, when history tells us at every instance it is unpaved, full of holes, and, at times, dauntingly steep. For the ultra-optimists that dominate the landscape of future thinking today, this means that the future is almost always less rosy than they expect it to be. Not flying cars, but open, violent warfare between old world cab companies and new world car sharing services. Not pleasant and servile robots, but semi-functional, hard- of-hearing digital assistants and high- frequency trading algorithms that jolt markets in ways that flesh and blood humans find difficult to comprehend. Not one world united in a grand project of stellar exploration, but a steady pulse of consolidation and Balkanization that stirs distrust and hatred, broken up here and there by fleeting glimpses of human greatness.
Neither can futurists simply anchor their visions to the sciences in order to be carried along by a relentless sense of progress and improvement. Scientific knowledge comes with its own cost. It unearths dizzying new truths that threaten to unseat us from our self-appointed place of privilege in the universe. The greatest truths, uncovered, reveal the wretchedness of our species’ lot: Copernicus consigned humans to a celestial backwater, Freud determined that we would misapprehend even the merest contents of our own minds, and Darwin fitted us with a shackle made from the troublesome inheritance of the untold numbers of merciless and savage creatures that came before us. Science, technology, progress: each beacon of hope creates a miasma of horror forever beyond its reach.
The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft keenly understood this; futurists today would do well to imbibe some of his cosmic pessimism. For Lovecraft, the more we learn, the more likely that “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Maybe. But there is at least a small chance that we might persevere. Understanding Lovecraft’s vision shouldn’t diminish our fascination with, and hope for, the future.
If anything, cosmic pessimism makes our species’ modest accomplishments to date that much more remarkable. The future becomes more, not less, exhilarating when we understand that every battle we win against ourselves and nature is a small miracle to be celebrated.
This truth impressed itself upon my mind later on that same trip. I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred or so space enthusiasts, staring into the immense thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Space Power Facility, the largest of its kind in the world. Its domed ceiling soared eleven stories above us, enclosing a circular chamber the width of a basketball court in which space-bound components like the Curiosity Rover’s airbag system and coupling systems for SpaceX’s rockets were stress tested under conditions that could simulate the emptiness of space and the unfiltered radiation of the sun.
It wasn’t the size of the chamber that made the hairs on my arms stand up. It was the walls. Eight feet thick and made entirely of concrete, they were the only thing that kept the whole building from crumpling like a hunk of tin foil during extremely high vacuum conditions. Even so, when the vacuum chamber was operational, the pressure weighing on the chamber from the outside would cause the walls to bow inward under the strain. What an awe-inspiring technology it was that could create a state so utterly alien to the earth that our atmosphere would displace millions of tons of concrete in an attempt to rebalance the scales.
Looking at those chamber walls, I thought of Aristotle’s dictum. Horror vacui: Nature abhors a vacuum. I mean, she really, really hates them. And yet, here it was: a quaint little machine for summoning a vacuum. And here we stood.