So far, non-stick frying pans are the only practical benefit of space exploration, and even that benefit is dubious: cast iron usually works better.
Yet every now and then, one observes an eruption of gushing enthusiasm over discovery of something or other in space.
The latest seismic event of this nature concerns the possibility that the recently found exoplanet (one outside the solar system) K2-18b may have enough water to sustain biological, or even human, life.
This morning, two middle-aged women who ought to know better were discussing the possibility on TV in the gasping tones of kindergarten girls who’ve just found out where babies come from.
One of them graciously allowed that it was by no means “guaranteed” that K2-18b is inhabited, and there I was, getting my hopes up sky-high.
One down from guaranteed is highly likely, and even that assessment requires evidence, rather than conjecture. But the two women clearly didn’t know the difference between science and science fiction. Space exploration, one of them said, reflects our desire to learn more about ourselves.
Logically speaking, we could only acquire such knowledge if humanoid creatures were indeed found on some exoplanet. Comparing them to us, we could conceivably learn something, although I’d still maintain that we can learn more from Dante, Shakespeare and Bach – to say nothing of Scripture, and nothing is what’s usually said about it.
Now, all those centuries ago I worked at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston (or rather Clear Lake City), where I often drank with astronauts. I also travelled to the Marshall Space Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, where I drank with older scientists speaking in caricature German accents.
However, the romance of space travel was lost upon me, and it still is. So I have to disappoint the two TV gushers: people didn’t spend trillions on space exploration out of curiosity. They did so because they wanted to spy on other people and kill them more efficiently.
In both the USSR and the US, the space programme was an offshoot of a military build-up. After Wernher von Braun and other Nazi scientists had demonstrated the killing potential of missiles, both post-war superpowers awakened to the possibilities.
Once Germany was overrun, they forcibly recruited Nazi rocket scientists and engineers, dividing them between the two countries. The division wasn’t exactly equal: the Russians got 2,200 of them, while the Americans had to make do with a mere 1,600.
However, arguably the American imports were more senior – after all, they included von Braun himself, who had died before I got the chance to drink beer with his associates in Alabama. The Germans didn’t persevere as long in Russia: they were allowed to go home after Stalin’s death in 1953.
But the Soviets’ own space programme was already up and running, led by such talented men as Korolev and Chalomey. The essence of it was put in a nutshell by Khrushchev (whose son Sergei worked for Chalomey). He ordered Korolev to create a rocket that could carry a nuclear warhead to the US.
Around 1956 Korolev mentioned to Khrushchev in passing that oh, by the way, the same rocket could also put a satellite into space, just for fun. Khrushchev instantly grasped the propaganda potential of such a coup and ordered that a satellite be launched in 1957.
It was then that ideology barged in on space real politik. The Sputnik’s scientific value was nil; its propaganda value was immense. That caught Americans by surprise: their own space programme was developing along strictly pragmatic lines.
However, Khrushchev threw down a gauntlet, and the Americans had to pick it up. They too began to use the space programme for propaganda purposes – with neither side neglecting the military application.
President Eisenhower was lukewarm on space, putting it mildly. But his young and impetuous successor, Kennedy, was red-hot on it. He even lied to the public about the “missile gap”, with America supposedly trailing Russia in the space race.
In fact, the American rocket programme was already far ahead, which was demonstrated by the 1969 Moon landing. A gap in favour of the Soviet Union existed only in the area of ideology and the decibel level of the surrounding noise.
Since then the two countries have largely abandoned space-related propaganda – it has become old hat. Yet the military potential of space exploration remains huge, and it’s driven by the desire to kill people, not to learn more about them.
However, there was another strain to space-related ideology, one that went beyond the tug-of-war between the two powers.
When Gagarin became the first man in space, he also became the poster boy of communism and was hysterically feted (that, incidentally, was the last time I felt enthusiastic about space, which is forgivable for a lad of 13). But at one of the endless galas, Khrushchev, typically tipsy, let the ideological cat out of the bag.
Gagarin, he said, went all the way up to heaven and saw no God there. Wasn’t that proof that God didn’t exist?
I won’t demean either you or myself by pointing out the idiocy of that statement. But Khrushchev inadvertently revealed another impelling aspiration behind space exploration: atheism.
Modern people have taken on the impossible task of proving that man was created not by God, but by Darwin. Yet even some of them are aware that they could do with better proof than our supposed simian descent, which belief is doubtless based on atheists’ frank self-assessment.
Central to the Judaeo-Christian view of the world is the uniqueness of both man and Earth, the sole stage on which man’s drama is played out. Central to atheism is the urgent desire to debunk that view.
Hence atheists feel compelled to find life, ideally sentient life, on some other planet. That way they’d feel justified in insisting that man is nothing special, that he’s indeed nothing more than a jumped-up ape.
From there they’d be able to construct a rickety bridge to the materialist cosmology for which their loins ache. QED.
So yes, in that sense the two TV gushers have a point. The secondary purpose of space exploration is indeed to learn something about ourselves. Or rather to unlearn it.