On ‘Central Projects’ for a Civilization

by Paul Gilster on May 21, 2005

“The space program stands with the cathedrals and pyramids as one of the great ‘central projects’ of history, epic social feats embodying the worldview of a culture and the spirit of an age. On the launch pads, the rockets point heavenward like Gothic spires. Searchlights intersect on a waiting ship to form a great candescent pyramid, ablaze on the black horizon like some alien encounter, radiating light to the heavens. To reach for the heavens seems almost the signature of the central project. The pyramid was called the ‘stairway to heaven,’ the cathedral the ‘gate of heaven.’ The archetype is in Genesis: ‘let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.’

“Literature on the pyramids, cathedrals and moon shots has tended to miss the significance not only of great height as the signal feature of central projects, but also their function as means through which whole cultures have found symbolic expression. Writers often pay lip service to the official rationales — immortality for the Pharaoh, a shrine to the Holy Virgin, or the quest for the grail of lunar rocks — while stressing the negative function of these projects as a source of shallow political pride…or as a display of collective vitality… Though some have noted that the central project focuses the energies and educates the consciousness of a population during periods of cultural transition, attracting the best and most adventurous minds of the age, most of the interpretation has been narrowly political, reflecting the pedestrian, power-oriented, if not paranoid, slant of contemporary social science. Thus the pyramids become a ploy for political control, the Gothic cathedral is rooted in royal squabbles, and the space program is but a product of WASP prejudice or cold war hypocrisy — themes that lack all perception of the projects as spiritual quests in the broadest and deepest sense.”

Wyn Wachhorst, The Dream of Spaceflight (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 99-100.