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Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift

If those of us from the Apollo era sometimes look back with regret at the failure of our society to follow through on early lunar exploration, we can still acknowledge that the issue is far from settled. As Nick Nielsen points out in the essay below, we’re in an interesting period, one in which commercial interests are changing how we look at future space missions, and indeed, changing our view of what may be considered the central project of our civilization. With historical sweep that takes in the death of Socrates, paleolithic art and Arthurian mythology, Nick sees as the great monuments of civilization not just the Pyramids, the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal, but also the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station. Here’s a richly textured probe, then, into the mythologies that make us who we are and who we will be, and the forces that shape what a civilization chooses to do.

by J. N. Nielsen

There is a Tide in the affayres of men,
Which taken at the Flood, leades on to Fortune:
Omitted, all the voyage of their life,
Is bound in Shallowes, and in Miseries.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene iii, lines 2217-2220
Brutus to Cassius, before the battle at Philippi

1. Ankle Deep in the Shallows
2. Periodization of the US Space Program
3. Scenarios for Spacefaring Breakout
4. A Stagnant Space Age
5. A Digression on Periodization
6. Institutions and Their Central Projects
7. Institutional Drift in Private Enterprise
8. The Consolation Prize for Institutional Drift
9. How the Space Industry Got Its Groove Back
10. Finding a Compromise That Works
11. Human Purposes in Deep Time
12. Sufficient Conditions for Spacefaring Civilization
13. The Weston Principle
14. The Beginning of the Inquiry

1. Ankle Deep in the Shallows

Carl Sagan opened his Cosmos, both the television series and the book, with this reflection:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.” [1]

For Sagan the water seemed inviting, but to continue the metaphor with which Sagan began, if the ocean had called to humanity, we could have continued wading further into the tide, into deeper waters, until eventually we lost our firm footing and, in order to continue, we would have had to swim forward, out into the deeper, darker waters. Instead, we waded out ankle deep with Apollo, but then retreated and now are only keeping our toes damp.

What has happened to space exploration? Why has it faltered from its ambitious and hopeful beginnings to become what it is today? Who is responsible for the contemporary state of space exploration? What can be done about the state of space exploration? Are we to expect more of the same, such as we have seen for the past fifty years, or will there be a revival of space exploration no less ambitious than its initial efflorescence?

Here I am going to attempt to discuss many matters that I have also discussed earlier and elsewhere, but hopefully to bring together some disparate threads so as to see them whole in their social context. While the lens of my discussion will be the US space program and its institutional drift since the Space Race, what I have to say about the US space program applies, mutatis mutandis, to other institutions and their programs. Specifically, what I have to say about the institutional drift of the US space program applies to the institutional drift of other institutions, both larger and smaller than the space program. It applies to larger institutions, such as the largest of all human institutions — civilization (one of my eight definitions of civilization is that civilization is an institution of institutions)—as well as to smaller institutions—say, individual businesses, or particular scientific research programs—both of which, large and small, falter, founder, and fail when purpose is lacking.

2. Periodization of the US Space Program

Considered historically, the US space program may be roughly divided into three periods:

1. Prehistory: aviation and aeronautical development leading up to the Sputnik Crisis
2. Founding Era: from the Sputnik Crisis to the Apollo Program
3. Stagnant Era: from the Apollo Program to the present day

The prehistory of the space program can be traced all the way back to the first use of tools by human beings. For any technological development we might identify as the authentic beginning of the aviation and aeronautics, there is another technological development prior to this that could be identified as a prerequisite for the later technological development, so that the identification of any one technological threshold is merely conventional. We can identify conventional historical thresholds if we like—for example, we could identify an immediate predecessor era to the Founding Era that could begin with Robert Godard’s liquid-fueled rocket of 1926, or, before that, with Hermann Oberth’s 1923 book The Rocket into Planetary Space (Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen), or, before that, with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s 1903 book Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices (Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами)—in order to give an earlier bound to a immediate predecessor period. The many possible thresholds for a more narrowly defined prehistory to aerospace technology (narrower, that is, than simply taking the whole of technological prehistory) points to the problem of identifying an authentic origin. There is nothing at all illegitimate about an inquiry into origins, or in formulating a periodization based on such an inquiry, but it is not a problem with which I will concern myself here.

The Founding Era [2] speaks for itself. It begins with an accomplishment, the first artificial satellite, but this accomplishment was not the end of a great effort; rather, Sputnik was the beginning of a great effort, and was immediately followed by further accomplishments building upon the Sputnik success, ultimately culminating in the Apollo moon landings. The Russian space program did not ultimately send cosmonauts beyond low Earth orbit, but the trajectory of the Soviet program could be given a similar periodization to that I have given for the US space program, as during the Space Race the Soviet space program was rapidly advancing in technology and the pace of operations in order to match the US space program, and, given time, might have launched its enormous N1-L3 rocket, rival to the Saturn V, and made its own attempt at a moon landing.

The Stagnant Era, the present era of space exploration, is that period since the end of the Apollo program which has been characterized by a lack of clear purpose, both public and private institutional drift, and a failure to aggressively develop the technologies of space exploration, that is to say, a failure to push the envelope of technological development. (I have earlier discussed the stagnancy and institutional drift of the US space program in A Strategic Pause in the Development of Spacefaring Civilization.) In section 4, below, we will go into much greater detail on the Stagnant Era.

We can postulate a nascent fourth period now underway (a post-Stagnancy Era) during which private space industries may fulfill and expand upon the promise of the Founding Era, though at the present time it is not yet clear if we have emerged from fifty years of space exploration stagnation, or whether the apparent momentum of the present is illusory and will either come to an end in the near future, or it will enter into its own comfortable plateau of stagnation once it passes beyond infancy. I have a theoretical and analytical interest in history, but I am not a prophet, so I will not attempt to predict which fork in the road our civilization will take over the next few decades. (However, my theoretical perspective does not mean that I am without any agenda, and I will make no secret of my preferred outcome.)

One of the remarkable features of the Stagnant Era is that there has been, at least since the 1930s (judging by the science fiction of the period), a clear awareness of the possibility of how space exploration and space industry could transform human life on Earth and lead to a human civilization encompassing and transcending Earth, but, despite the awareness of the vision, that vision alone was insufficient to drive a spacefaring breakout. An active space program, both in terms of crewed missions and space science robotic missions, also has been insufficient to drive a spacefaring breakout. Given that being a space-capable civilization is a necessary condition of spacefaring breakout, this begs the question as to what exactly would constitute a sufficient condition for a spacefaring breakout.

3. Scenarios for Spacefaring Breakout

What do I mean by “spacefaring breakout”? In The Spacefaring Inflection Point I distinguished three scenarios for what I call spacefaring breakout, which is when some heretofore exclusively planetary civilization becomes a spacefaring civilization:

Early Inflection Point: when spacefaring is pursued with exponential scope and scale immediately upon the technology being available.
Mediocre Inflection Point: when spacefaring is pursued with exponential scope and scale only after it has been available for a substantial period of time, but in the same longue durée period within which the technology became available.
Late Inflection Point: when spacefaring is pursued with exponential scope and scale only after the technology has been available throughout a longue durée period of history, so that the realization of spacefaring appears in a subsequent longue durée period of history. [3]

To return to our opening metaphor of the cosmic ocean borrowed from Carl Sagan, spacefaring breakout is the moment when we no longer feel the sand beneath our feet, and we must begin to swim if we wish to continue to move forward, rather than to retreat; the transition from wading to swimming is the inflection point. Once you’re swimming in the cosmic ocean, even if you are still in sight of the shore, you are no longer reliant upon this proximity, and the whole of the cosmos is open to the strongest swimmers.

The same transition from planetary to spacefaring civilization can be formulated as the distinction between space-capable civilizations and spacefaring civilizations, a distinction due to Dr. Jim Pass and elaborated in his paper “An Astrosociological Perspective on Space-Capable vs. Spacefaring Societies” Employing Pass’s terminology, spacefaring breakout is the transition from space-capable to spacefaring civilization, and the above schematic trichotomy distinguishes three formulations of this transition as an historical process. A spacefaring breakout is not yet part of human history, but it can be thought of in historical terms, i.e., as an historical process, albeit an historical process that, if it occurs, will occur in the future. However, the process is no less historical for being set in the future.

Making this tripartite distinction in spacefaring breakout makes the question of the previous section—What exactly would constitute a sufficient condition of a spacefaring breakout?—three distinct questions:

• What could constitute a sufficient condition of an early spacefaring inflection point?
• What could constitute a sufficient condition of a mediocre spacefaring inflection point?
• What could constitute a sufficient condition of a late spacefaring inflection point?

In each of the above questions, the necessary condition of a spacefaring breakout, whether early, mediocre, or late, is the same: being a space-capable civilization. For a sufficient condition, there may be a single response that answers all three questions, or there may be a distinct answer for each distinct historical process representing spacefaring breakout, accordingly as the distinct stage of development at which a civilization finds itself as it faces the question of launching a new Age of Discovery in space—or not.

4. A Stagnant Space Age

During the Founding Era it seemed as though the space exploration vision was about to be realized, and it was in fact partially realized, but after fifteen exciting years of the Space Race, the initial efflorescence of the space program faded, and subsequent space exploration confined itself within less ambitious horizons. If the Founding Era had been the historical point of origin for spacefaring breakout, human civilization would have experienced an early spacefaring inflection point. [4]

The Space Race was a superpower competition by proxy, and was not about achieving a spacefaring inflection point, although the two seemed to coincide for a time. Instead of (or, perhaps I should say, in addition to) fighting each other on proxy battlefields of the Cold War, the US and the USSR fought for supremacy in space: “The US and USSR utilized the space fight and planetary exploration programs as an assertion of superiority. What made this conflict extraordinary was the fact that it was a nonviolent war.” [5] While prominent intellectuals like Bertrand Russell expressed their contempt for the superpower competition aspect of space exploration [6], there is an important sense in which the Space Race represented the best of humanity, when our destructive drive for warfare was sublimated into achievements in science, technology, and engineering. [7]

The Stagnant Era began when superpower competition reverted to less imaginative, more conventional forms of proxy warfare, but a counterfactual in which the Space Race form of superpower competition continued is far from inconceivable. Indeed, space artist Mac Rebisz, in Space That Never Was, illustrates just such a counterfactual. Rebisz writes of his artistic vision, “Imagine a world where Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.”

After fifty years of the Stagnant Era, a spacefaring breakout even in the near future would constitute a mediocre spacefaring inflection point (which would exemplify the principle of mediocrity and thus would seem more intrinsically plausible than an early inflection point). If no spacefaring breakout occurs for some time, the best that can be hoped for is a late spacefaring inflection point (if any breakout is to occur at all), though we can’t say, apart from other contingent historical circumstances not known to us, how long the present stage of development can be extended before it spills over into a new period of history.

In his Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clarke noted that, “Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years.” [8] In so saying, he might well have been speaking of the Founding Era of space exploration, a revolution through which he had just lived as he spoke these lines. [9] Clark also noted in the same book, “People sometimes wonder why the Renaissance Italians, with their intelligent curiosity, didn’t make more of a contribution to the history of thought. The reason is that the most profound thought of the time was not expressed in words, but in visual imagery.” (p. 126) In the same spirit, it would be reasonable to say that the most advanced thought of our time is expressed in science, technology, and engineering, and that great movements in science, or in technology, or in engineering, don’t last for more than fifteen years. Perhaps no one should have expected anything more than this initial efflorescence of the dawning Space Age.

In identifying the period since the end of the Apollo Program as the Stagnant Era, I do not mean to say that nothing of significance has been done by the space program. I have many times pointed out that the space science missions NASA has mounted since the end of the Apollo program have transformed our knowledge of cosmology, and have done so at a relatively low cost in comparison to much “big science.” [10] Judged by the magnitude of the knowledge acquired, these space science missions may have been the best money human beings have ever spent. But expanding our knowledge of the cosmos, while admirable and scientifically exciting, is not going to transform our terrestrial civilization into a spacefaring civilization.

A mature planetary civilization needs to extend itself a little beyond its planetary surface, as homeworld observation is and will be a crucial part of managing a planetary biosphere over the longue durée, but such a civilization could limit itself to operations in a low orbit and still achieve the necessary observational evidence gathered by satellites—much as we have maintained a de facto limitation on human space exploration within low Earth orbit throughout the Stagnant Era. In other words, a mature, long-lived civilization is consistent with a space-capable civilization that never experiences a spacefaring breakout.

I have repeatedly encountered a number of arguments intended to explain, excuse, rationalize, or otherwise justify the stagnation of the Stagnant Era, and I understand why these arguments are made. There are expressions of the inevitability of robotic space exploration (it’s not inevitable and it’s not the same as human space exploration); that human exploration isn’t necessary because machines can do it better (the argument for space exploration isn’t from its necessity) and it would be dangerous for human beings anyway (not everyone is risk averse; some individuals seek out risk) [11]; that Apollo and similar programs were too expensive (there is no economic study that demonstrates that expenditures on the Apollo Program adversely impacted the US economy), and so on and so forth. While each individual rationale for the failure of human space exploration can be argued in its own right and on its own merits, the fact of multiple rationales for this stagnation, such that as soon as we have dismissed one, another is offered in its place, is also significant. I have called this serial excuse-making The Waiting Gambit: if we will just wait, things will be better. There will be a right time for space exploration, but that time is not now.

For those who have never lost sight of the space exploration vision, it is painful to fully accept and to internalize the fact that we have possessed the economic and technological and scientific resources necessary to a spacefaring civilization, but have simply failed as a species to pursue this opportunity. [12] One way to reconcile oneself to this painful state of affairs is to make excuses to justify this failure, but I find it both more interesting and more instructive to face the failure head-on and to try to understand it for what it is. That is what I am trying to do here.

5. A Digression on Periodization

There is a term for the duration that usually characterizes great movements and revolutions (which is what the Founding Era was), as Clark humanistically described them, and that is Fernand Braudel’s term conjuncture. Braudel distinguished three kinds of history:

“…time may be divided into different time-scales and thus made more manageable. One can look at the long or the very long-term; the various rates of medium-term change (which will be known in this book as the conjuncture); and the rapid movement of very short-term developments—the shortest usually being the easiest to detect.” [13]

Braudel also touched on these terms in the Glossary to his The Identity of France:

longue durée, la: literally ‘the long term,’ an expression drawing attention to long-term structures and realities in history, as distinct from medium term factors or trends (la conjuncture) and short-term events (l’évènement) [14]

Richard Mayne, in his Translator’s Introduction to Braudel’s A History of Civilizations, argued that Braudel had arrived at his tripartite levels of periodization as a response to the problem posed by the relationship between, and the concurrent exhibition of, the immediacy and drama of history as it transpires before our eyes, and the silent background to these events which changes little but constitutes the context that makes the passing spectacle meaningful and comprehensible. Mayne described Braudel’s three nested periodizations intended to address this problem in the following terms:

“…the quasi-immobile time of structures and traditions (la longue durée); the intermediate scale of ‘conjunctures,’ rarely longer than a few generations; and the rapid time-scale of events.” [15]

Braudel deemphasizes the history of the event, and Braudel’s revaluation (and indeed devaluation) of the event is the occasion of a quote from Braudel that is poignantly instructive for his conception of history:

“Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.” [16]

Intuitive and naïve historiography—if there is such a thing, which we might also call folk historiography — privileges the event, much as it privileges narrative. A narrative usually takes the form of a succession of events, often succeeding one another at a rapid pace:

“All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.” [17]

Both the Founding Era and the Stagnant Era can be considered historical conjunctures in Braudel’s sense, and both conjunctures fall within the longue durée of industrialized civilization, which is less than three hundred years old. A space exploration mission like the Voyager Program, which has endured for decades, constitutes its own conjuncture. In the popular media, however, it is the event that is noted and celebrated, torn from the context of its conjuncture and its longue durée. Voyager 2 was in the news a year ago (cf. NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space, 10 December 2018) because it had passed out of the Solar System, as Voyager 1 had earlier, in 2012. This was an event, and, as Braudel said, it has passed across the stage like a firefly, hardly glimpsed before its settles back into darkness and eventually into oblivion. For space exploration to be more than an ephemeral sequence of events, to be something more than a headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of narrative, it needs to be more than an event; it needs to be recognized as an age in which we find ourselves — the Space Age, a space exploration conjuncture, or the longue durée of industrialized civilization converging upon and transforming itself into a spacefaring civilization.

One way to do this is to begin thinking about space exploration in terms of the longue durée, and, following Braudel, placing less emphasis upon the event. I have already invoked the longue durée in defining spacefaring inflection points; this use of Braudelian periodizations can be made more thorough, as in the following:

Early Inflection Point: when spacefaring is pursued with exponential scope and scale as a continuous sequence of events, so that the immediate prehistory conjuncture to space exploration is followed by the Founding Era conjuncture, and the Founding Era conjuncture is followed by a further conjuncture that builds upon the Founding Era. This sequence of conjunctures, in turn, begins to define a spacefaring longue durée.
Mediocre Inflection Point: when spacefaring is pursued with exponential scope and scale only after the Founding Era conjuncture is followed by several further conjunctures, some of them tightly-coupled with the Founding Era and some only loosely-coupled with the Founding Era, but the sequence of conjunctures eventually leads to a spacefaring breakout conjuncture within the same longue durée period within which the technology became available.
Late Inflection Point: when spacefaring is pursued with exponential scope and scale only after the technology has been available throughout a longue durée period of history, so that a spacefaring breakout appears in a subsequent longue durée period of history. In this way, the Founding Era is the culminating conjuncture for space technologies within a given longue durée, and after lapsing for a time, the next spacefaring conjuncture occurs in the next longue durée. It is possible that this historical rhythm might be iterated several times over before a spacefaring breakout occurs as a result of one of these spacefaring conjunctures.

The justification for thinking historically about spacefaring civilization is to employ the conceptual resources of historiography to analyze and thus to clarify our relationship to historical time, even if this historical time constitutes a period we have not yet completed, or not yet even entered. Arguably, we are not yet a spacefaring civilization, even if we are space-capable civilization, but we can think historically about potential developments, regardless of whether they come to pass.

6. Institutions and their Central Projects

The Stagnant Era, although a conjuncture of space exploration by a space-capable civilization, has been, and continues to be, characterized by the institutional drift of the space program, which latter drift has been the result of a lack of purpose. I have taken to calling the purpose of an institution its central project, having adapted this from Frank White’s The Overview Effect, in which he wrote:

“Since beginning the Overview Project, I have come to see space exploration as part of a long tradition of central projects… These projects, although involving visible material artifacts, were actually vehicles for more abstract social and psychological aims.” [18]

Human beings have created and participated in institutions large and small, and of a bewildering variety, and one of the lenses we can employ in an analysis of these institutions that have governed human social life is that of the central projects of these institutions. Despite the eponymous centrality of central institutions, it is not always easy to identify the central project of an institution, and sometimes it is downright difficult to do so. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests discussing justice in relation to the state rather than justice in relation to the individual because it should be easier, he says, to see justice writ large as embodied in a just state, but this Socratic conceit does not seem to apply to the study of central projects, as the largest institution that human beings have created is civilization, and correctly identifying the central project of a civilization is often difficult, despite (or perhaps because of) the scope and scale of civilizations and their central projects.

Human communities, whether small and temporary or large and long-lasting, have coalesced around common purposes; purposes are the focus of a social group, the force that binds individuals together, and the seed from which civilizations grow into the largest common purposes that have yet emerged among human beings. These purposes begin as something small, parochial, mute, and inarticulate, but over historical time grow and adapt to become something great, cosmopolitan, eloquent, and meticulously, carefully, and explicitly articulated in the creeds and founding documents of a social tradition.

But even as great purposes grow into civilizations that unify the efforts of millions of individuals, there continue to be smaller institutions with smaller purposes, and the space programs of the various space-capable nation-states exemplify these smaller purposes. The US space program after the Sputnik Crisis [19] had a clearly articulated and easily understood goal: beat the Russians in the Space Race, which efforts were given a concrete direction by President Kennedy in 1961:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” [20]

The goal was further elaborated in a speech at Rice Stadium in 1962 (the “Moon Speech”):

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.” [21]

Despite the ultimate success of the Apollo program and the clear purpose that it represented, or perhaps because of the success of the Apollo program and the purpose it represented, once that limited purpose was fulfilled, the space program of the Space Race vanished once the race had been won. For reasons related to this, John M. Logdson called Apollo a dead-end:

“Apollo turned out to be a dead-end undertaking in terms of human travel beyond the immediate vicinity of this planet; no human has left Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in December 1972. Most of the Apollo hardware and associated capabilities, particularly the magnificent but very expensive Saturn V launcher, quickly became museum exhibits to remind us, soon after the fact, of what once had been done.” [22]

However, a few sentences further along Logsdon adds:

“In 1969 and 1970, even as the initial lunar landing missions were taking place, the White House canceled the final three planned trips to the Moon. President Richard Nixon had no stomach for what NASA proposed: a major post-Apollo program aimed at building a large space station in preparation for eventual (in the 1980s!) human missions to Mars.”

Apollo was a dead-end in so far as it was not followed by additional missions of a similar scale, but this was due to lack of political leadership and unwillingness to fund the vision, not due to any lack of a space exploration vision. The purposes for an ongoing space program were clearly articulated, but these purposes did not enjoy the spontaneous acclaim of the social body. If the additional flights to the moon had gone forward—obviously, the technology and infrastructure was all in place to do this—we would have continued to learn about conducting a space program at the scale of Apollo, and these lessons would have been applied forward to any plan that was funded to continue the momentum established by Apollo. This would have been the time to ride the flood tide to spacefaring fortune; instead, we omitted the flood tide are now bound in shallows and in misery.

For anyone with even a passing familiarity with plans for space exploration, the big picture context for the Apollo Program was the Wernher von Braun mission architecture so memorably laid out in Collier’s magazine (and thus sometimes called the “Collier’s Space Program”) from 1952 to 1954 (years before Sputnik). [23] The Space Shuttle, which was built, was a small fragment of this program, the Integrated Program Plan (IPP) [24]—it was a spacecraft without a mission, because the other parts of the IPP, which would have functioned integrally with the Space Shuttle, were not built. In this sense, the Space Shuttle was a poignant reminder of a lost opportunity (no less than Saturn V launchers, already transformed into museum exhibits, as Logsdon observed), rather than the triumph it was presented as being at the time.

We see, then, that there was a clear vision for the continuation of the US Space Program that would have involved ongoing achievements in space exploration, and moreover that this vision was given an explicit formulation by NASA with its IPP, and before that by Wernher von Braun and other space exploration visionaries. In short, if someone tries to tell you that no one knew what to do next after Apollo, that there were no purposes for the space program once the Space Race had been won, they are simply gaslighting you; there is ample evidence to the contrary.

Within just a few years of the end of the Apollo Program, Gerard K. O’Neill saw the failure to continue to fund the US Space Program at levels commensurate with the Apollo Program as the key problem, and in response to the funding crisis outlined an ambitious space program that would fund itself through solar power satellites (SPS) beaming energy back to Earth. The SPS space program was, if anything, even larger than the von Braun IPP, and involved even greater spaceflight infrastructure, but while O’Neill’s vision was consistent with space exploration, the raison d’être of the O’Neill SPS program was not space exploration per se, but space industrialization. There is a difference of tone, and a difference in rationale, between a space exploration program and a space industrialization program, though a space industrialization program would eventually be exapted for space exploration. Thus while O’Neill’s was a distinct vision of a spacefaring future, and a different purpose for the space program, it was explicitly articulated and constitutes evidence of a multiplicity of space program goals, any one of which would have meant a post-Founding Era distinct from the Stagnant Era.

Even a series of “flags and footprints” missions throughout the solar system, however narrowly conceived, but always leaving flag and footprints at some further remove from Earth, would have both contributed to experience in human spacefaring (meaning experience in the optimal use of available technologies and practical feedback on these technologies that could lead to their incremental improvement) and would have involved the development of a spacefaring infrastructure beyond that which we possess today. [25]

For example, the von Braun space program was focused on a mission to Mars, but that mission to Mars would have entailed all of the elements of the IPP—space shuttle, cislunar shuttle, space tug, nuclear shuttle, low Earth orbit space station, geosynchronous orbit space station, Lunar orbit station, Lunar surface base, and Mars base, with many of these elements assembled in Earth orbit and so providing experience in space-based construction—thus a considerable spacefaring infrastructure. It is at least arguable that, to accomplish a Mars “flags and footprints” mission with the technology known to von Braun, all of this infrastructure would be necessary, whereas the “Mars Direct” mission architecture of Zubrin has been made possible by technologies developed later.

7. Institutional Drift in Private Enterprise

The national space program began to drift when it was essentially defunded by the Nixon administration, and NASA lacked the money to carry out the plans that it had on the drawing board, but the institutional drift of the US space program went beyond government institutions. The largest aerospace contractors that made the US space program possible also began to drift after the Apollo Program, but their drift was, paradoxically, not due to a lack of money, but rather due to a superfluity of money that was made available to them through government programs that had gone adrift: here it seems that institutional drift at the national scale flowed downstream to contractors.

In its time, Boeing did a lot of visionary work, as in the 1968 Integrated Manned Interplanetary Spacecraft Concept Definition, Final Report (in six volumes — Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III part 1, Vol. III part 2, Vol. IV, Vol. V, Vol. VI), which is a model for a clearly and explicitly articulated vision, i.e., a very “nuts and bolts” vision in which engineering detail predominates over everything else. But at some point in the subsequent decades, Boeing lost its way. The widely discussed article in The New Republic, Crash Course: How Boeing’s Managerial Revolution Created the 737 MAX Disaster by Maureen Tkacik, demonstrates in a wider context how Boeing lost its way by focusing on its stock price rather than on its products. This is another way of saying that Boeing’s central project, once clearly defined by the engineering challenges of aerospace innovation, drifted away from this focus and was captured by financial interests, which is the common fate of institutions in a condition of drift: when they cease to aspire to an ideal, they tend to the lowest common denominator.

In any large institution—whether an aerospace contractor or a government or an educational system, etc.—there will always be a variety of human types employed. There will, of course, be those who are true believers in the mission of the institution, but this isn’t necessarily the largest part of the staff. Large enterprises mean that many people are brought into a project who have only a peripheral interest in the central project. There will be some within the institution who are mere time-servers, waiting until retirement so that they can collect a comfortable pension. There will be some managers and administrators who are only involved in order to further their careers. There will be those who will get by with as little work as possible. And there will be those who see their duty as being that of making their institution the most successful institution that it can be, but, since they don’t understand or appreciate the central project, their understanding of institutional success is in terms of conventional measures of profit, career advancement, and market share.

This is not to throw shade on the employees of large aerospace contractors and their motivation and commitment; the problems with large institutions are systemic, and not the fault of individuals. I have no doubt that in the Mongol’s Golden Horde there were probably a good number of mediocre horsemen who were not made of the same stuff as those horsemen who achieved decisive victories against the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi and against the Seljuks at the Battle of Köse Dağ. [26]

It is entirely possible for a given business enterprise to be wildly successful in conventional metrics while failing to fulfill the central project that was its raison d’être when the business was founded. It is also entirely possible that a given business enterprise is founded with the intention of making a profit and advancing the careers of its employees, and only becomes attached to some central project for contingent historical reasons that have no intrinsic relationship to the business enterprise in question. This, again, is a function of size. A very large project like the Apollo Program involved numerous contractors, and it would be unrealistic to expect that all of these contractors were as committed to the mission as those who conceived the vision. That doesn’t mean that these contractors weren’t committed to the mission, only that doing great work on the mission was a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

8. The Consolation Prize for Institutional Drift

I am not unaware that, in an age of technology-driven warfare, a nation-state must spend liberally on its aerospace industry in order to ensure that it possesses the technology and expertise to compete as a peer in the contest for air superiority, and that such liberal spending on defense-related industries will inevitably result in a certain amount of waste and corruption, but the waste is often the price of keeping these industries afloat. However, subsidizing industries crucial to national defense is in no sense inconsistent with a strong sense of purpose, and indeed I would argue that an aerospace industry subsidized by space exploration missions that further the central project of a space program would be more effective subsidies and, more, would lead to greater innovation and capability than the kind of lazy subsidy we see with rewarding contractors cost overruns on unimaginative projects that fulfill the letter, but not the spirit, of the tender.

The uncomfortable scenario that we must consider is that, once the space program was gutted by Nixon administration budget cuts, the blow to morale, both at NASA and among its contractors, led to individuals shifting their focus from the central project of the space program to personal and private pursuits that would not be derailed by government decisions. Careerism can, for some, fill the void created when a larger purpose fails. And so it was that the money continued to flow to the space program, which funds were insufficient to mount a space exploration program at scale, but more than sufficient to pay salaries and bonuses. (Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg declined his bonuses for 2019 due to the 737 MAX debacle, but in 2018 pocketed $23.4 million in bonuses and equity awards.) The purpose evaporated but careers continued for the lucky few.

The loss of purpose and consequent institutional drift is not merely a loss of meaning and value, but also a financial loss. A spacefaring breakout at an earlier inflection point would have made Boeing one of the largest companies in the world, with an assured future for as long as it participated in this effort. (Boeing is the largest aerospace and defense contractor in the world, but it is not in the top fifty of the largest companies in the world by revenue.) The rewards of following through on the IPP would have been far greater than Boeing receiving an additional 287 million on the CST-100 Starliner fixed price contract (cf. Boeing seems upset with NASA’s inspector general by Eric Berger). I am reminded of when, in the film Casablanca, Rick Blaine insists that he was well paid for running guns to Ethiopia and fighting for the Loyalists in Spain, police captain Louis Renault says to Rick, “The winning side would have paid you much more.” So too, in economics at the scale of the nation-state, or even at a planetary scale, being on the winning side of history pays much greater dividends than being on the losing side, however successful one is at losing. And, unfortunately, receiving government largesse on the CST-100 Starliner (tested, not entirely successfully, for the first time on Friday 20 December 2019) is just an elaborate way of losing.

9. How the Space Industry Got Its Groove Back

The comfortable and profitable relationship that major aerospace contractors have with government institutions could have continued for decades (as it had been going on for decades), or even for centuries, with enormous quantities of taxpayer money spent, and progress in the programs so incremental as to be indistinguishable from stagnation, had it not been for the disruptive entry of private space companies into the aerospace industry and the work of private industry on reusable rockets. [27] NASA, of course, pursued reusable spacecraft with the Space Shuttle, but this well-intentioned exercise took place within an institutional context that virtually guaranteed that few costs savings would be realized from reusability at this scale. There will come a time when reusable spacecraft at the scale of the Space Shuttle will be built and used again, but the economics of large reusable spacecraft will be very different from the economics of the space shuttle; reusability looks different now than it looked when the Space Shuttle was being designed.

The development of reusable rockets by private companies is a game changer not only because of the technology, which may deliver lower costs for access to space, but also because the private companies involved appear to be interested in space exploration as an end in itself, and not merely as a way to profit from government contracts. [28] This is disruptive of the status quo, which had continued to do space business, but had ceased to believe in the mission, for all practical purposes. The fact that this lack of purpose was rarely discussed in explicit terms, but was rather accepted as the background to business as usual, is further evidence of the stagnation of the aerospace industry.

The problem with transcending the status quo and allowing (or even facilitating) a great disruption to shift the direction of history (as would have been the case with an early inflection point for spacefaring civilization), is that no one really knows who will be in power, and who will get the rewards, after the shift has been accomplished. Those who are now in power, and who now receive those rewards that can be conveyed by historical business-as-usual, have a vested interest in not allowing a revolution to occur that would displace them from their position of preeminence.

During the Space Race, the explicitly stated purposes of the competing parties, the US and the USSR, provided a larger framework within which the uncertainties of the great disruption of a spacefaring breakout were moderated. To compete in the Space Race was to be in the vanguard of history, and to win meant that the social system of the winning party to the race would be iterated beyond Earth. Thus the participants in the Space Race—nation-states, national space programs, their contractors, and the contractor’s employees—knew that the revolutionary disruption they were effecting by engaging in the Space Race would benefit their side, which would either directly or indirectly mean a benefit for themselves

It could be argued that the rise of global capital and transnational industry had to rise to a level comparable to superpower competition before a similar degree of certainty would obtain that those in positions of power would continue to hang on to their positions of power despite any disruptive change on a civilizational scale. This is not the only interpretation that can be given to the emergence of private space industries that have disrupted business-as-usual among national space programs, but it is, I think, a plausible interpretation. (Let me know if you have a better interpretation.) Commercial disruption of business-as-usual becomes an acceptable option when the captains of industry are confident that they will be winners in any likely outcome.

10. Finding a Compromise That Works

The institutional drift of the Stagnant Era has been the cumulative result of the sheer size of the institutions involved and the inevitable weakening of the intensity of the space exploration vision. The space exploration vision itself has passed on from its “gee-whiz” Golden Age of Science Fiction origins and entered into popular culture, which means that an originally heroic and inspiring idea came to be lampooned, ridiculed, mocked, and exposed to every kind of jibe and jeer.

There are some interesting parallels to this in history. Socrates was one of the most respected men in Greece, an inspiring figure to many, but that didn’t save him when the Athenians turned against him. There is a fascinatingly well-expressed passage in the ancient historian Eunapius that describes how Aristophanes’ play The Clouds prepared the Athenians for the trial and execution of Socrates:

“. . . no one of all the Athenians, even though they were a democracy, would have ventured on that accusation and indictment of one whom all the Athenians regarded as a walking image of wisdom, had it not been that in the drunkenness, insanity, and license of the Dionysia and the night festival, when light laughter and careless and dangerous emotions are discovered among men, Aristophanes first introduced ridicule into their corrupted minds, and by setting dances upon the stage won over the audience to his views . . .” [29]

Eunapius was willing to go even farther in his condemnation of the Athenians:

“. . . and so the death of one man brought misfortune on the whole state. For if one reckons from the date of Socrates’ violent death, we may conclude that after it nothing brilliant was ever again achieved by the Athenians, but the city gradually decayed and because of her decay the whole of Greece was ruined along with her.” (op. cit., p. 383)

For reasons related to this, traditional cultures have always carefully erected a veil of sacredness [30] around the mythological central projects that have been the core of all civilizations: by shielding their mythological central project from the ordinary business of life, by separating it and treating it as something fundamentally distinct, to be shown deference regardless of context, and by ensuring that a high price is paid for the violation of this taboo, the mythological central project never enters into predictable trajectory of popular culture, hence never becomes the fashion, hence never goes out of fashion, and never experiences the ups and downs of the wheel of fortune (or, if it does experience them, it experiences this variability of fortune to a greatly attenuated extent).

Socrates was admired and perhaps loved, but he (and his philosophical project) was not sufficiently embedded within the Athenian central project that the veil of sacredness protected him from the light laughter and careless and dangerous emotions that led the Athenians to sentence him to death for impiety. Indeed, the veil of sacredness shrouded the piety against which Socrates was said to have offended. For all that the Greeks achieved in philosophy, philosophy was not the central project of ancient Greek civilization. As I have observed above, it can be surprisingly difficult to discern the central project of a civilization; what appears on the surface to be important may in fact be peripheral, while that which appears peripheral may be the true center.

If a mythology of a central project is to endure for the longue durée, it must be inviolate by convention and consensus, or nearly so. To remain inviolate by convention and consensus is as much as to say that the implicit social contract recognizes limits upon the ordinary business of life, exempting the central project from the kind of rough handling that would call into question the foundation of the community that has this central project as its raison d’être.

It probably is no longer possible for the central projects of civilizations since the Enlightenment to maintain the kind of aura that surrounded the religious central projects of traditional civilizations, but that doesn’t mean that industrialized civilizations are necessarily and inevitably subject to drift. [31] It may be possible that an historical narrative could be constructed in such a way as to justify the raison d’être of a community, and sufficiently held apart from other aspects of life so as to be retained more-or-less intact over historical time. That is to say, actual historical events (like the Founding Era) could be mythologized for a social purpose.

We have seen something like this with the foundation of the US, which is an artifact of the Enlightenment—a nation-state explicitly constituted on Enlightenment principles—such that the Declaration of the Independence, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers have been sufficiently reverenced to retain the cohesion, continuity, and coherency of the Enlightenment project that is the US. We do not yet know how long this compromise can be sustained, nor whether it will ultimately be successful, but it is the most successful project to emerge to date from the Enlightenment. If the Founding Era were to be mythologized in this way, that is to say, in a way consistent with the Enlightenment (and one could easily argue that this is already underway), the cohesion, continuity, and coherence of the Space Age might be similarly retained over historical time. [32]

11. Human Purposes in Deep Time

We have seen that there have been several explicitly articulated space exploration visions that preceded (Collier’s), coincided with (IPP), or followed immediately after (O’Neill SPS) the Founding Era. However, none of these visions were realized except in the most fragmentary form. I have paid particular attention to these explicitly articulated visions simply to forestall claims that there were no such visions to serve as a purpose for an ongoing space program to fulfill, but the explicitly articulated visions are rarely as powerful as those which remain implicit and which are spontaneously expressed within a given social group.

A purpose does not need to be clearly articulated; it need not even be formulated in language. The most effective purposes are those that are tacitly shared by every member of a society, so that agreement on purpose is spontaneous and unquestioned. In small bands of hunter-gathers (i.e., during the bulk of human history, which was also our environment of evolutionary adaptedness), shared purpose is nothing less than and nothing more than survival and reproduction. In other words, the earliest human purposes were the imperatives of natural selection, which functions by differential survival and differential reproduction. As human groups became larger and better organized, growing in scope and scale, purposes became more complex and more abstract, evolving and adapting as the growing society evolves and adapts to its available niche.

When language emerges, and when human beings are sufficiently long-lived that grandparents can pass down the lore of the tribe to grandchildren, while their parents are out hunting and gathering, a tradition and a culture emerges, and later when written language is invented, this culture can be preserved in a nearly pristine state from the inevitable variations that enter into the oral transmission of culture.

This process has been playing out for hundreds of thousands of years, and for millions of years if we extend the scope of our inquiry to include human ancestors prior to Homo sapiens. We have had cities and settled agriculture for ten thousand years (written language appeared approximately half way through this ten thousand year development of settled human societies), while industrialized civilization is less than three hundred years old—in other words, the human world that we know is very recent, even shallow, though human history is much longer than we usually recognize. Because of this deep human history, later developments unusually include survivals from earlier stages of development that have been sedimented into contemporary institutions. [33]

The deepest layer of sedimentation is evolutionary psychology, shaped by our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, and that is why I touched on these deep sources of mythology in my Spacefaring Mythologies post. After the layers of evolutionary psychology come the layers of past human cultures and societies, built upon the earlier evolutionary psychology, and providing the foundation for later cultures and societies long after the earlier iterations have been forgotten, often entirely effaced from the historical record. As social evolution is more rapid than biological evolution, our hundred thousand years or more of social evolution has left us with a deep history of which we are scarcely aware—layers upon layers of sedimented traditions—though I should point out that social evolution can be pushed much further back into prehistory than the human condition extends; we inherit social instincts with our neurological structures that go back in time at least a half billion years. [34]

The most successful mythologies, even the mythologies of sophisticated civilizations, are at least consistent with this deep evolutionary past of the human mind. Mythology is a kind of recapitulation in which the contributions of ages past—whether biological, psychological, social, or cultural—are each given their due, and these antecedents serve as a springboard to something authentically novel, something unprecedented that facilitates human beings to transcend their past and to accomplish something unprecedented. And this is precisely what will be required of a spacefaring mythology: while maintaining some connection to past traditions, something essentially novel must be superadded in order to provide an adequate framework for the novel activities of spacefaring.

If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.

12. Sufficient Conditions for Spacefaring Civilization

A spacefaring civilization (or what I have called a properly spacefaring civilization, i.e., a civilization that takes spacefaring as its central project) requires a spacefaring mythology, and while a spacefaring mythology would be an unprecedented development in human history, it cannot appear de novo. Any mythology, in order to be viable, must draw from the same human materials as all previous mythologies, which is to say, a viable mythology must draw from the deep past of sedimented traditions that we carry both within ourselves and in our cultures.

The necessity of a spacefaring mythology for a spacefaring civilization offers a key to a problem posed earlier. In section 3 we asked three questions, based on the assumption that the necessary condition for a spacefaring breakout was the existence of a space-capable civilization:

• What could constitute a sufficient condition of an early spacefaring inflection point?
• What could constitute a sufficient condition of a mediocre spacefaring inflection point?
• What could constitute a sufficient condition of a late spacefaring inflection point?

Perhaps the sufficient condition of a spacefaring breakout is an adequate mythology that can inspire, contain, and direct the unprecedented changes that would fall to the human condition in the event of a spacefaring breakout and the transition to a spacefaring civilization. The industrial revolution transformed our way of life, and gave us powers that no one from earlier eras of human history would ever have believed would come to be held by human beings. A spacefaring breakout would be similarly disruptive—different in every detail, but ultimately no less transformative of social institutions and the context of the ordinary business of life.

Mythology takes shape over the longue durée, or over historical time periods longer than the longue durée, and the materials it draws upon are far older. If this is an adequate way to understand the human condition, i.e., historically, over evolutionary time, and if it is also true that mythology takes shape only over the longue durée, then it would appear to be the case that only a late spacefaring inflection point would allow a mythology to come into being that would be adequate as a central project for a spacefaring civilization (assuming that such a mythology is not already in existence, or something close enough to being such a mythology, but waiting in the wings to be exapted for spacefaring).

We could posit, as a counterfactual to our own civilization, another civilization in which the mythologies available during the historical period in which space exploration technologies first become available are suited for a spacefaring breakout, and this serves as the sufficient condition above and beyond the necessary condition of being space-capable. In this scenario, an early spacefaring breakout obtains, and this answers the first of our three questions, though given these assumptions the sufficient condition must subsist in the space-capable civilization.

At one remove from this scenario would be a civilization in which the mythic materials are available in the wider culture, and they merely await some individual or institution to tie together the technologies and the mythic materials into a whole. In this scenario, several conjunctures follow upon the equivalent of a Founding Era in which the mythic material is rapidly adapted to space exploration, and a mediocre spacefaring breakout obtains, which answers our second question.

Where there remains an unbridgeable gulf between the introduction of space exploration technologies and a mythology adequate to their exploitation, such a mythology must develop over a formative period measured over a longue durée, as nothing less would be sufficient for the codification of a mythology on such a scale where none existed previously. This appears to be a chicken-and-egg problem, as we cannot build human experience in space without being in space, and we can’t be in space without the human experience of space exploration. This chicken-and-egg scenario leaves open the window for a very gradual adaptation to spacefaring—so incremental that its effects cannot be discerned over ordinary historical scales of time, but which, looking back over a longue durée, might be obvious in hindsight. The slowness of this incremental process is also the reason for the period of time required for such a mythology to come into being.

13. The Weston Principle

Mythologies come into being over scales of time that are nearly incomprehensible to the individual human being, and because of this we have often—more often than not—misunderstood the mythologies by which we live. We do not know the histories of our mythologies, because these histories are lost in the mists of time, and it is only in relatively recent scholarship that a sustained effort has been made to uncover the origins of stories so close to the human heart that we cannot see them objectively without the greatest effort.

Jessie L. Weston published From Ritual To Romance a hundred years ago in 1920. Weston’s book traced elements of the Arthurian mythology and the Grail legend to pre-Christian sources. Arthurian mythology constitutes a significant corpus of medieval literature, deeply Christian in its symbols and motifs, but the wealth of detail on display in the Arthurian tradition cannot be exhausted by distinctively Christian ideas. Weston’s research supplied the origins of the non-Christian remainder of the Arthurian tradition from earlier and older mythology. In its time Weston’s thesis was controversial much as Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a major influence on Weston, had been controversial. We are no longer shocked by such scholarship.

The principle by which Weston worked can be generalized beyond the specific circumstances of Arthurian mythology supervening upon the mythology of early agricultural societies such as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The mythology of such societies as described by Frazer would have, in turn, been indebted to the earlier mythologies of their predecessor societies, perhaps dominated by intensive gathering and transhumance, and the mythology of these societies would in their own turn have been indebted to yet earlier mythologies of hunter-gatherers, such as we possess a mute record in cave paintings and prehistoric sculpture. And just as past mythologies owed part of their substance to previous mythologies, any future mythology will owe part of its substance to mythologies represented in the present and earlier. I call this the Weston Principle.

Our records of past mythology are significant only up to five thousand years ago, when written language appeared, and before that our evidence is only indirect, if it exists at all. From Çatalhöyük (during the Holocene, from about 9,500 to 7,700 years before present) we have many intriguing paintings and sculptures exhibiting a thematic unity—bulls, aurochs, and corpulent Venus figurines—but, lacking written records, any reconstruction of the belief system of which they are the material expression, can only be speculative. Further excavation may reveal additional evidence, but we have no reason to expect finding the Anatolian equivalent to The Epic of Gilgamesh, as there is no evidence at all for written language during the time of Çatalhöyük.

Before Çatalhöyük we have the remarkable cave art of the Paleolithic, itself a period of prehistory extending over more than three million years and consisting of a succession of cultures, each of which may have had their own mythology, received from a processor and passed down to a successor culture, with descent with modification at each stage of transmission. Over this long succession of hunter-gatherer Paleolithic cultures one suspects that the mythology remained relatively simple as long as social organization remained relatively simple, but that development accelerated with the advent of cities, complex social organization, and eventually written language. We arrive at length at the depth and complexity of something like the Arthurian tradition by the accumulated mythological development of successive human societies extending back in deep time.

Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.

The Weston Principle connects these mythologies through time based on an evolutionary sequence in which each stage of development is indebted to the stage that preceded it, and no stage of development begins as a blank slate.

14. The Beginning of the Inquiry

We are, as human beings, adrift without an adequate mythology—where there is no vision, the people perish. The institutions of human life—what Braudel called the structures of everyday life — are no less subject to institutional drift than industries, scientific research programs, and civilizations, though in the absence of more sophisticated social organization, the institutions of human life are ultimately reducible to subsistence. Indeed, a reduction to subsistence is what awaits us if we allow our institutions to drift downward to their lowest common denominator.

Assuming that we wish to avoid a reduction to subsistence, which is social collapse, it is in our interest to cultivate some mythology that will allow us to retain some of the gains that we have made upon mere subsistence, and, if possible, perhaps also to better these gains and to transcend our present condition in favor of a stage of social development as far removed from the present as the present is removed from bare subsistence. But mythology cannot be fabricated on demand; a mythology is organic to the life of a people, or it is not a mythology (perhaps this is the proper demarcation between mythology and ideology).

A spacefaring mythology would be organic to the life of a spacefaring people. Mythologization, including spacefaring mythologization, is a process that occurs over the longue durée (section 12), incorporates material from the deep past of humanity (section 11), and must shape itself to the most recent cultural forms that are its immediate predecessors (section 10). These general principles are some of our clues that point us in the direction of some future spacefaring mythology.

We cannot yet say what a spacefaring mythology would be, but we can make a systematic inquiry into the forms of human experience that will eventually be represented within a spacefaring mythology—the full range of human experiences become lived experience in outer space, and, from that lived experience in outer space, become the raw material to be shaped into mythic forms. This, then, is not the end of the inquiry, but the beginning.


[1] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, New York: Random House, 1980, Chapter 1, p. 5.

[2] What I am here calling the “Founding Era” Michael J. Neufeld has called the “Heroic Era” in the book he edited, Spacefarers: Images of Astronauts and Cosmonauts in the Heroic Era of Spaceflight (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2013): “The missions of the first astronauts and cosmonauts opened a period I call ‘the heroic era’ of human spaceflight—both for the media representation of their image and the actual danger of their occupation.” Neufeld reckons the Heroic Era from Gagarin’s 1961 flight to the 1986 Challenger disaster, so his Heroic Era is a little offset from, and a little longer than, the Founding Era as I define it.

[3] I have slightly revised the wording of these inflection points since I introduced them in The Spacefaring Inflection Point.

[4] If human civilization had transitioned into an early spacefaring breakout, with no lapse in the continuity of spacefaring developments, we would by now be more than sixty (60) years into this historical process of becoming a spacefaring civilization. For an historical parallel, if we take the origin of the industrial revolution to be James Watt’s steam engine (commercially introduced in 1776), the continuity of development of the industrial revolution meant that sixty years later we come to a time when railroads were being built and the telegraph was being invented. If the industrial revolution had entered into a period of stagnancy after fifteen years, there would have been no railroads in the 1830s.

[5] Eleni Panagiotarakou, “Agonal Conflict and Space Exploration,” chapter 47 in The Ethics of Space Exploration, edited by James S.J. Schwartz and Tony Milligan, London: Springer International Publishing, 2016.

[6] “I am afraid that it is from baser motives that Governments are willing to spend the enormous sums involved in making space-travel possible.” Quoted in Earth to Russell by Chad Trainer. While Russell never withheld his disdain for the Space Race, in other contexts he was more willing to consider a spacefaring far future for humanity; cf. Bertrand Russell and Olaf Stapledon.

[7] In psychodynamic psychology, the idea of sublimation is that otherwise destructive energies are channeled into some other part of life, often expressed constructively in art or science or invention. Sublimation on a trans-personal level, the sublimation of the worst instincts of the crowd, can also channel otherwise destructive energies into creative projects, and it is this that accounts for the great monuments of civilization such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the LHC, ITER, and the ISS.

[8] Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, Chapter 5, “The Hero as Artist,” p. 120. Later in the same book Clark wrote, as if to hammer home his earlier point, “The dazzling summit of human achievement represented by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci lasted for less than twenty years.” (p. 139) And again, regarding the impressionists: “…it is surprising how short a time the movement, as a movement, lasted. The periods in which men can work together happily inspired by a single aim last only a short time—it’s one of the tragedies of civilisation.” (p. 290) It would be instructive to compare computer technology to spacefaring technology, as computer technology seems to have experienced nearly continuous development over several decades—still perhaps within a charitable interpretation of Clark’s window of achievement, but four times as long as the Founding Era. Also instructive is a comparison with nuclear technologies, though in the case of nuclear technologies we know that their stagnation was the result of both proliferation concerns and public discomfort with nuclear power.

[9] Clark’s Civilisation television series, like the book of the same title, was first broadcast in 1969—the same year in which the Apollo Program succeeded in landing human beings on the moon and returning them safely to Earth. Since Clark focused on art and society rather than science and technology, his examples are mostly drawn from traditional humanistic studies of civilization rather than technical studies of civilization, but Clark’s point could be argued either way.

[10] For one superficial example, the total cost of the Voyager Program from 1972 to 1989 was 865 million dollars (51 million dollars per year, on average); the cost to operate the LHC is about a billion dollars per year. This is not a criticism of large particle accelerators, only a comparison of costs. Also, the Voyager costs have not been adjusted for inflation, which one would need to factor in for an apples-to-apples comparison.

[11] The arguments that highlight a simple-minded and ultimately self-defeating distinction between human space exploration and robotic space exploration have led to an artificial debate about whether space exploration funds should be spent on human missions or robotic missions. The debate is artificial because, if our space program had not entered into a state of institutional drift, and if a vigorous space program had tumbled forward into an early inflection point for spacefaring civilization, then the scientific instruments we would have been able to build in space would have far exceeded capacities of the scientific instruments we have sent out with robotic space exploration missions, and cosmology would have become “big science,” so integrated with the central project of spacefaring civilization that it would be virtually indistinguishable from that civilization itself.

[12] In this connection I am reminded of the famous claim that the British acquired their overseas empire in a fit of absence of mind (“We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England, 1883); one might contrariwise claim that we have failed to converge upon a spacefaring civilization in a fit of absence of mind. No one, single decision led us to our present condition, and no conscious choice was made not to pursue the space exploration vision. In the present context I am choosing to employ a strong formulation of our failure to attain spacefaring civilization, largely in order to avoid any ambiguity on the topic. A full discussion of this point would constitute the matter for another essay.

[13] Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World (Civilization and Capitalism, Vol. III), p. 17. Both Hegel and Nietzsche, incidentally, also distinguished three kinds of history, but these were not distinct time-scales of history, as in Braudel, but, rather, they were kinds of historiography. I have previously discussed Braudel in my Centauri Dreams post Synchrony in Outer Space. I hope to discuss Hegel and Nietzsche in relation to the historiography of spacefaring civilizations in a future essay.

[14] Fernand Braudel, The Identity of France, Vol. I, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 408.

[15] Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations, Penguin Books, 1993, p. xxiv.

[16] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901.

[17] Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27.

[18] White, Frank, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, third edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, p. 3. My use of “central project” differs somewhat from White’s use as I have sought to develop the idea in relation to the institutional structure of civilization. However, it was in White’s book that I first encountered the idea, so my use of it is related to White’s use by descent with modification. Some of my posts about the central projects of civilizations include Civilizations and Central Projects, An Anecdote about the Unifying Role of Central Projects, Central Projects and Axialization, Some Desultory Theses on the Central Project of Contemporary Civilization, and The Central Project of Properly Scientific Civilizations, inter alia. What I have not yet done is to write an explicit and systematic exposition of central projects, or to generalize the idea of a central project to other institutions beyond the institution of civilization.

[19] John M. Logsdon argued that there was no Sputnik Crisis: “It was a ‘Gagarin moment’ rather than a ‘Sputnik moment’ that precipitated massive government support for the technological innovations needed for success in space.” (Logsdon, John M., “John F. Kennedy’s Space Legacy and Its Lessons for Today,” Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. 27, No. 3, Spring 2011, pp. 29.) We will have occasion to further consider Logsdon’s paper in what follows.

[20] Excerpt from the ‘Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs’ President John F. Kennedy, Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress May 25, 1961.

[21] John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium, September 12, 1962. Both speeches are well worth reading in their entirety.

[22] Logsdon, John M., “John F. Kennedy’s Space Legacy and Its Lessons for Today,” Issues in Science and Technology, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 29-34.

[23] I don’t want to make it sound like the pursuit of von Braun’s vision would have been a cake walk. A mission as complex as von Braun’s Mars mission would have almost certainly resulted in some failures and fatalities, though if the will had been present to carry out a plan this ambitious, the mission would have continued despite fatalities, as indeed the Apollo Program continued despite the fatalities of Apollo 1, and even fulfilled Kennedy’s Lunar landing timetable despite the setback to the program. When space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing all aboard, the Space Shuttle program was suspended for almost three years.

[24] David S. F. Portree’s blog Spaceflight History: a history of spaceflight told through missions & programs that didn’t happen has an excellent treatment of the IPP: Think Big: A 1970 Flight Schedule for NASA’s 1969 Integrated Program Plan.

[25] One of the many arguments put forward against space exploration (other arguments are briefly discussed in section 4) is that we don’t yet possess the requisite technology for the human exploration of deep space. Given that technology is a means to an end, there is a certain fungibility and flexibility where specific technologies are concerned. If a spacefaring breakout had occurred prior to the computer revolution (which would have been the case given an early inflection point), the sciences would have been pursued the old-fashioned way, with human researchers and large physical models, less simulation, and more actual trials. For example, rather than theorize about conditions on Mars for decades prior to going to Mars, we would have gone to Mars and conducted experiments on Mars that would be far more informative and definitive than any experiments conducted with simulated Martian regolith.

[26] Armies recognize the difference in the fighting quality of various troops by positioning the most gung-ho elements as the “tip of the spear.” For example, the Achaemenid Empire had a heavily-armed corps of 10,000 men known as “The Immortals,” and Achilles’ Myrmidons were among the fiercest fighters of the Trojan War. The Immortals were maintained at their number by immediately replacing any soldier who became ill, infirm, or otherwise unable to fight at full capacity, so that The Immortals were “immortal” in the sense that the unit was always maintained at full strength. Achilles’ Myrmidons were personally motivated by their loyalty to Achilles. Both embody familiar models of leadership; Max Weber would have called the management of The Immortals “legal-rational” authority and the management of the Myrmidons “charismatic” authority. Cf. Weber’s essay “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule” (Die drei reinen Typen der legitimen Herrschaft).

[27] Before I am accused of Muskolatry, I should say that it is indifferent to me what private space company proves to be successful, if, in fact, any does prove to be successful. SpaceX is in the lead now, but we know that, over time, one company and then another will take the lead as technologies change and business models flourish or fail.

[28] It is particularly revealing that the popular press presents the authentic beliefs in a spacefaring future held by both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as a bizarre and scarcely credible curiosity, rather than as the motivating drive behind these efforts that contributes to their success; a typical article in this vein is The true reason Musk, Bezos, and Branson are obsessed with space by C.W. Headley; I attach no particular importance to this article, and link to it only as an exhibit.

[29] Philostratus and Eunapius, Lives of the Sophists, Cambridge and London: Harvard, 1921, p. 381.

[30] Peter L. Berger called this the “sacred canopy” in his influential book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of the Sociological Theory of Religion.

[31] However, this argument could be made. Science is essential to an industrialized economy, and an industrialized economy is the necessary condition of a space-capable civilization. The pursuit of science inevitably comes into conflict with traditionalism, and science practiced at the scale of civilization may mean that every tradition upon which that civilization is founded eventually comes under attack. If this is true, then it could be formulated as a response to the Fermi paradox, and you could call this the traditionalism hypothesis: no civilization can long persist once science opens Pandora’s Box. On the other hand, civilizations that remain traditional could endure for as long as their homeworld remained consistent with their survival; under this response to the Fermi paradox, the universe could be filled with traditional civilizations that have never experienced a scientific revolution or an industrial revolution. We could not communicate over interstellar distances with traditional civilizations because they never develop electromagnetic technologies.

[32] I have already touched upon this in an earlier Centauri Dreams post, Spacefaring Mythologies, in which I discussed several distinct scenarios by which the Founding Era might be mythologized.

[33] Edmund Husserl used “sedimented” in this sense in his essay, “The Origins of Geometry” (in Husserl: Shorter Works, Notre Dame: Harvester Press, 1981, pp. 255-270; this essay also appears as an appendix in most editions of Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology)

[34] Some interesting finds have been made of soft tissue fossils of early central nervous systems; cf. “Fuxianhuiid ventral nerve cord and early nervous system evolution in Panarthropoda,” by Jie Yang, Javier Ortega-Hernández, Nicholas J. Butterfield, Yu Liu, George S. Boyan, Jin-bo Hou, Tian Lan, and Xi-guang Zhang, and “Brain and eyes of Kerygmachela reveal protocerebral ancestry of the panarthropod head” by Tae-Yoon S. Park, Ji-Hoon Kihm, Jusun Woo, Changkun Park, Won Young Lee, M. Paul Smith, David A. T. Harper, Fletcher Young, Arne T. Nielsen and Jakob Vinther. Also cf. my blog posts on these papers, How early a mind? and A Counterfactual on Central Nervous System Development.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley December 27, 2019, 16:47

    This essay seems to imply that not only will spacefaring civilizations have a mythology, but that they will need one to exist. I don’t believe that is proven.

    The analogy seems to be that seafaring nations have mythologies. Of course, as there are no spacefaring civilizations, we don’t know if there will be a mythology, or whether we really need one to become a spacefaring civilization. A counterfactual is that we have no airfaring civilization (by terminology at least), yet there is plenty of airfaring going on. It might even be regarded as far more dominant than seafaring today. Is there no mythology about flight? Do we need a mythology about flying? Is it because flight is so recent? Or is it because airfaring has proven an economic way to travel from point to point across the Earth’s surface in a short time?

    I find the apparent conflation of spacefaring and space exploration problematic. Spacefaring implies use space flight as an important part of civilization. But this is different from exploration, which might need just a few journeys to “find out what is there”. While the notion that robotic probes “don’t count”, they have proven the only means to “explore strange new worlds, to go where no human has gone before”: in our solar system and beyond.

    Arguably, we don’t yet have the technology to become a spacefaring civilization. To date, our vehicles have all been disposable. Would there be seafaring nations if each time a ship went to sea it was lost by the time it returned? The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum is filled with historic aircraft, such as Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. The only historic spacecraft are the charred remains of capsules, while the rest of the ship was lost. Museums have more historic ships like the Tudor period Mary Rose and the various Viking longboats. Even if expendable rockets were not replaced, we have yet to build a true spacecraft that could make multiple trips in space, needing only refueling. Perhaps SpaceX’ Starship and its first stage will prove the first. We’ll see. Until we do, I see little hope that we would become a spacefaring civilization, simply due to cost and effort.

    My final point is that seafaring (and airfaring) people had a reason to travel as they did. Whether it was for easier transport of goods and people, or the retrieval of goods from distant lands, there was an economic driver. Space has, as yet, no economic driver. There are no precious metals, spices, or slaves to be had in space. The tourism of other worlds is yet to be proven. There are no worlds that can be colonized successfully with today’s technology, and no drivers to do so. O’Neil’s vision might have changed that,m but the initial cost was vast. As with flight, where commerce drove the expansion, space will need to prove commercially viable. As yet, there is no need for humans to be spacefaring. Hopefully, that may change as technology develops. But even then, I don’t see humans traveling beyond the outer solar system at the furthest, as the time constraint seems to preclude that without enabling technologies.

    • wdk December 28, 2019, 18:54

      While I follow your line of argument and I believe there is something to it, regarding needs or not for mythologies, I would like to point out that not all spacecraft were disposable or discarded after use. Whether a successful venture or not ( arguable as well), the Space Shuttle Orbiters flew dozens of times into orbit. They rendezvoused with and assembled a space station and they returned cargo. I did not participate much with Apollo, arriving too late, but I did get a chance to be involved with Shuttle, nearly from the ground floor…

      Astronauts, their ships and supporting crews:
      Some of the Shuttles made it to museums. Others clearly crashed in service. The astronauts themselves, with Shuttles or without, are an on-going concern. Some have gone on to other pursuits, retired, passed on… Difficult to characterize them all. While many were military or civil service, some were academic – and now many have a entrepreneurial take on things.

      Correspondingly, cosmonauts had a tradition of their own. And it’s hard to say just how much of their traditions were transferred to US efforts, especially when a joint space station was undertaken. Some transfers perhaps are ironic, considering the earlier competitive space race; others are simply just expedient solutions to living in space carried over or similar to what were developed for surface navies, submarines and scientific expeditions and the Soviet/Russian long duration missions came first.

      But the article above is about how to succeed, and does their story (the space advocates) as it is told lead to successive generations carrying a banner farther and farther afield. That is problematic. Mythologies, of course, can backfire. For an example that would not be a hot button case, consider reading “All is Quiet on the Western Front”. Remarque was a veteran that is clearly contrasting his society’s expectations of World War I with what his experience was. We are not talking about warfare here, but we are examining considerable significant public expenditures or even sacrifice.

      As opposed to mythology, one would hope, government issued public affairs releases about “programs” serve narrow objectives. I can’t remember being inspired to sign up for anything because I read a press release issued by a public affairs office. I just hope that they are reliable sources of basic information.

      In all likelihood, artists, writers and popular historians somehow will have to be part of the inspiration for continued effort to open this frontier. Sometimes though, the astronauts themselves do a fine job of that. The lunar landing’s 50th anniversary reminded many of us of the autobiography by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins*, “Carrying the Fire”.

      * Not to be confused with the Irish Republican of the same name.
      “Carrying the Fire”.

      • Alex Tolley December 29, 2019, 13:39

        You make a good point that the Shuttle was not a capsule on an expendable rocket. It did seem to be a step in the right direction. Its failure could be as much about poor design as about a technological direction that seemed to dead-end a 2nd time. I contrast its incredible complexity (something that appalled Freeman Dyson) with the apparent simplicity of SpaceX Starship design. Whether SpaceX is taking the right approach for manned spaceships is still to be tested.

        Nielsen seems quite enamored of Joseph Campbell. The problem I have with such literary and philosophical ideas is that they are constructions, untested by experiment. Just as movie criticism can range teh spectrum between critics, ideas untested by experiment can vary between one “expert” and the next. The idea that mythology is important for success may be false. I do not see it as tested in any way. The US has an embedded idea of “manifest destiny” which leads to the perception of its rather parochial citizenry that everything America does is “the best”. This seems to have resulted in a number of pathologies as this nation has become a de facto, if probably temporary, hegemony. Hubris seems more apposite, IMO.

  • Charley December 27, 2019, 16:55

    I haven’t read the article in its entirety yet but I can almost tell you in advance, my thinking as to what you consider to be the problem and what I consider to be the problem.
    It falls down into two different categories; the first is the matter of money and practicality, and the second is what is our expectation of what outer space is going to be like.

    In the matters of money and practicality it should be pretty obvious to anyone who has a halfway thinking brain that outer space research is costly to engage in and the fact that what is outer space actually good for. Let’s think for a moment and ask ourselves why go to outer space; for the science? That’s hardly is a reason to engage in exploration just for the sake of exploration. This is an enterprise is going to cost a goodly amount of money and we here on earth need every cent that we can possibly accumulate just to deal with the problems that we have to deal with on our home planet. Right now there is a burgeoning population, which has so many different issues to deal with. And right now, people don’t have disposable income to play around with the rather fanciful issues of moving around in interplanetary and interstellar space. They have to put it mildly, more down to earth problems that need to be dealt with in their everyday lives. Perhaps, asteroid mining may be something in which someone can make money, but let’s be honest, it also may not be something that benefits the average person in the street only someone who is extremely wealthy. So making money is probably not going to be something that outer space is going to help us with.

    Just recently, it was written here about whether or not people will ever colonize other worlds in other star systems so as to extend the human population. Is that actually a really practical objective? Think of what it would take to move even a small fraction of the human population to another star system, both in energy and money. It begins to boggle the mind that anyone can even believe that it’s going to be possible to do so. The recent movie interstellar dealt with this very issue and at least in the fictional world of the movies it became possible to move the entire human population the some other star system, but that’s just Hollywood.

    That movie dependent upon being able to control gravity and manipulated to allow everyone on earth to flee the impending catastrophe. Somehow doubt that’s going to actually happen.

    The other thing is what is our expectation of outer space; that’s going to be a vast Star Wars or Star Trek adventure? That’s hardly going to be what were going to find out there and it’s not because I am a pessimistic individual. It’s just that I don’t particularly believe that there’s any indication that the universe is teaming with other peoples. So this leads me to the conclusion that despite the fact it’s a new frontier is not necessarily going to be, an EXCITING frontier. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

    • Nick Nielsen December 29, 2019, 5:55

      Why do we climb a mountain? George Mallory, when asked this, said, “Because it’s there.” Mallory knew that there was no pragmatic justification for climbing mountains, so he didn’t even attempt to argue money and practicality. Mallory also knew that mountain climbing was dangerous. He did it anyway, and it cost him his life. He died on Mount Everest in 1924.

      I think that the world is a better place for people like George Mallory, and I think that civilization is what it is because of people like George Mallory. The poet Robert Browning put it like this:

      “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
      Or what’s a heaven for?”

      Without “impractical” ideals or mythic visions, we would still be living in caves and huts. Why should we do more?

      Best wishes,


      • Alex Tolley December 29, 2019, 13:18

        Using Mallory as the subject, construct the mythology you believe he was living or acting under.

        One null hypothesis might be that a subset of humans always wants to travel over the next hill, and the first to climb the highest/hardest mountain peak is an exemplar of this nature. No mythology needed.
        In a scene from the BBCs “The Crown” (season 3), Prince Philip wants time alone to talk to the 3 astronauts who went to teh Moon. Instead of gaining inspiration from an expected high minded conversation, he was depressed by teh banality of the astronauts’ responses. They barely even seemed to understand what they had even done. A fictional presentation certainly. But these humans did not seem to be living mythology, and most probably not aware of any they might have been a cog in.

        • wdk December 29, 2019, 19:56

          The Prince Philip hypothetical conversation sounds like a straw man to me. Those three astronauts were three individuals who did a lot of press conferences. I can imagine them being tired of them far before they gave (if ever) individual interviews to the Crown family – if it happened at all. That sort of thing, experienced by Yurij Gagarin, might nearly have killed him.

          Of the three Neil Armstrong was probably the most taciturn, but also the most protective of the sacredness of what they had done. He was reluctant to speak in public, moved back to Ohio and a farm where he grew up – and then taught other aerospace engineers. Prior to that he had been a test pilot. Some of my colleagues attended his classes at Cincinnati University; which has a Roman civic resonance, doesn’t it. Maybe it was not coincidence.

          Michael Collins, if not much on the speech circuit, certainly wrote a book. I don’t think that one was ghosted. He has spent most of his career since associated with the Smithsonian and its
          Air and Space Museum.

          Neil Armstrong has been all over the place doing as much as one can expect for an individual to do in answer to Nick Nielsen’s call. And in defense of whether the landing had ever occurred, if I recall correctly, his defense was not very articulate but coherent in as much as he punched out his harasser in a hotel hallway. He spoke at a conference one time at a conference about 15 years ago right before I did. People really wanted to hear him. Thanks to the fact he preceded my talk I had an audience at all.

          While I don’t think we have yet launched Homer or Tennyson, a number of astronauts do have observations about what they have done and what it means – and are more likely to speak of it when they are not burdened to make sure they’ve performed a complicated mission letter perfect or in preparation for the next one. Sometimes their more laconic observations are worth something too. Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8 reported that one letter of appreciation he and his crew received was from a woman who wrote, “Thanks for saving 1968…”

      • Charley December 29, 2019, 18:25

        I appreciate the feedback and I agree respectfully with your point of view; but I believe you may have missed something here that is extremely important and impacts the course of the argument. Certainly a man such as George Mallory would view the conquest of Everest as a worthwhile goal in and of itself and no one would argue with the fact that it is the challenges in life that make certain aspects of living worthwhile.

        But I would certainly counter with the following argument as to why what I said previously still has a lot of validity.
        Let us imagine for a moment that Thomas Edison still invented the electric lightbulb, but now that lightbulb instead of costing perhaps 1 ¢ in 1900 prices now cost (for whatever reason, we could imagine) the hefty price of $10,000 in 1900. And there’d be no possibility to expect that the price that we would have to pay would in the future substantially drop or remain the same. There’s absolutely no doubt that the electric lightbulb is a valuable commodity to the average person in that it permits them all sorts of benefits while at the same time being much safer than an open flame for illumination.
        No matter the value of the item if it’s beyond the reach of the average person (or in our constructed viewpoint a national government), then no matter its value, and no matter how hard we might wish it to come about if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. That’s my point that there is a breaking point in which no matter how much you wish to go into outer space and travel among the stars, if you can’t afford it is not going to do you any good

  • Ioannis Kokkinidis December 27, 2019, 18:21

    A few comments: First of all I would say that the end of Apollo and the beginning of the “Era of Stagnation” (I do like the term) would be 1975 with ASTP, rather than Apollo 17 in 1972. The Soviets did have Salyut 1 in space already in 1972 but for the Americans it was Skylab that led to the stagnation in human spaceflight that followed. Since 1975 Human Spaceflight has been spacecraft A launches to Space Station B, or no space station at all. Now we have had more people launch to space, we have had women and people of more nations launch to space, we have had people stay longer in space, do more things in the space stations (or spacelab) but fundamentally nothing breathtaking has taken place since 1975. We have had repairs on satellites and space stations, but we already had that with Skylab 2. Now if you look on the history of commercial aviation you have that long evolution that basically end with the 747. New airplanes have been built since, slightly faster, more efficient, more reliable and even bigger with the A380. Nothing though as revolutionary as the series of revolutions all the way to the 747 has taken place since. This though does not mean that aviation has not been fun: The 19 euro one way trip from Heraclion to Paris would not be possible with 747 era technology and we would have lost the kind of fun you get from city breaks (or beach breaks on the reverse)

    Socrates was not killed because he was not sufficiently embedded with the Athenian elite as Eunapius who lived 9 centuries later claims. Eunapius after all had to show that the Dominatum was a better regime than Athenian democracy. Socrates was killed because he was embedded in the Athenian elite and his students were too much part of the oligarchic party.Two of his students were among the 30 Tyrants and too many had been sympathetic to them, even though Socrates himself was not. In a city that condemned to death the winner of Marathon, Miltiades, exiled the winner of Salamis Themistocles accusing him of treason and collusion with the Persians, and executed the winning generals of the battle of Aegospotami because in the middle of the storm had not picked up the survivors of the shipwrecks, the execution of Socrates is not a surprise.

    The article makes an interesting hypothesis: The advance of civilization takes because of “crazy” people following a mythology eventually succeed in their madness and in order to advance we need to have a mythology that crazies can look forward to. Changes though also come from more sane people with more sane agendas. Go out and look around your house, lots of stuff there invented by people without a vision, e.g. the plastic wrapping around your food which came out from an experiment going wrong. No one had a vision let’s wrap food in plastic to preserve it longer, but this is what we are doing or is being done for us in the food factories

    • Nick Nielsen December 29, 2019, 5:42

      Since you have put “crazy” in scare quotes I’m not sure in what sense you are using the term (perhaps you mean something like “crazy like a fox,” or perhaps not), but to elaborate a little on this, I don’t consider it crazy for individuals to contextualize their activities in some mythology. Indeed, I believe that almost all of us do this almost all of the time. Joseph Campbell often cited how Carl Jung, at a decisive point in his life, asked himself, “By what myth am I living?” And in asking himself, he realized that he did not know, and thus he made it his personal quest to discover the myth by which he was living. I think it is like this for most of us most of the time: we are living according to some myth, but most of us to do know it—at least, we do not know it on a conscious level. But we respond to it, because it engages us on an unconscious level. This isn’t crazy, this is just the way that human beings work.

      The example you cite of the invention of plastic wrap is an interesting one that might be developed at greater length. That it was accidental seems to me to be peripheral to the argument that “sane” people invent things that contribute to a civilization without investment in the “crazy” vision provided by mythology. I think the case in fact is quite a bit more complex than that. There are all kinds of people who have only a tenuous relationship to the central project of the civilization of which they are a part. And there are all kinds of communities and societies entirely contained within a structure as large and as comprehensive as a civilization that are entirely or almost entirely disjoint from the central project of the civilization of which they are part. And sometimes it is simply a disaffected individual who feels no connection to the social ideals of his social milieu. Such an individual, or an individual who is part of a disjoint community embedded within a larger civilization, might even strive to make some contribution just to spite the established social order, and in an attempt to demonstrate the superior achievements of his minority community. Or such a disaffected figure might have entirely different motives, like the character of Galen Urso in Rogue One.

      There is a lot more that could be said about this interesting window onto technological achievements by disaffected individuals or minority communities within a larger civilization, but I will save a more extensive exposition for another time.

      You make a good point about Eunapius and Socrates, and I certainly would not say that the execution of Socrates was a surprise. He had ample opportunity to escape, but chose not to escape and rather to face execution. However, this does not mean that Eunapius was wrong that Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and its public ridicule of Socrates, made Socrates’ execution the more likely, perhaps even made more palatable, by this means.

      Best wishes,


  • Robin Datta December 27, 2019, 22:27

    Thamk you for a deeply contemplated piece!

    Spacefaring, from fare implies a kind of journeying – through space. The implication does not include a purpose for the travel.

    The hallmarks of biologic systems are the imperatives of survival and increase in biomass. The latter is accomplished through growth and replication. Both imperatives are frequently subordinated to the community at large in multicellular and social organisms.

    For living systems to persist through billions of years, they had to exist in closed-loop systems: my humanure is lunch to the plants; the plants are lunch to me. To keep the balance a variety of checks and limits had been operative, but they have been successively defeated by agriculture, pest control, irrigation, soil management, breeding better plants and animals, etc.

    One way to increasing biomass is by spreading to new territories. The necessary adaptations to each differing milieu included animal skins for insulation, decreased cutaneous melanin to allow through more of the more diffuse sunlight for vitamin D synthesis closer to polar latitudes, stockier body builds in colder climates to reduce heat loss, etc.

    One might ask Why not space?, and the answer is from an astrophysicist who works for NASA with reflectors left by Apollo on the moon and laser interferometry to monitor the movements of the moon relative to the earth to centimeter precision; he is also a professor on the faculty at the University of California, San Diego.

    The big difference with space is the milieu. First, Earth’s gravity well. If we get out of it no gravity, and all the consequences thereof. Nothing to breathe. Nothing to drink. Nothing to eat. And past the van Allen belts, lethal radiation. If we stay under the van Allen belts for short sallies and pack enough air, water and food, we can make do.

    For any prolonged trip we will need to take a functioning piece of an eanth biosystem with us. As yet, it’s a tall order. And beyond the van Allen belts, figure out a way to protect against radiation. And deal with the gravity (or rather the absence thereof) of the situation.

    Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” leaves a lot to be desired in the technologic transition to a spacefaring species. The transition cannot be made in one leap. The source for such knowedge and technology lies in space exploration; we have hardly begun to take the first baby steps.

    Corporate lobbyists, government agencies’ bureaucrats, corporate contractors, subcontractors, and their bureaucrats, corporate stockholders, legislators’ home district constituents, and others contribute to the bloat in costs of government programs. That is why private efforts do it so inexpensively. Had there been a profit to be made (as in pharmaceuticals), they would flay the customer while remaining slim and trim.

    A concerted effort to space exploration would need a good reason. The death of the sun would be such an event, but waiting would deplete our resources long before then. Maybe we can develop a narrative that will be effective, but herding cats might be easier.

    • Robin Datta December 28, 2019, 16:36

      John Michael Greer’s blog, The Archdruid Report has since been replaced. The blog post referred to in the above link “Why not space?” is still available from a crossposting at Resilience.org:
      An Elegy for the Age of Space

  • Alex Tolley December 27, 2019, 23:31

    Now if you look on the history of commercial aviation you have that long evolution that basically end with the 747. New airplanes have been built since, slightly faster, more efficient, more reliable and even bigger with the A380. Nothing though as revolutionary as the series of revolutions all the way to the 747 has taken place since.

    I had been thinking the same thing with the same aircraft. I used to have a book on aircraft development that was written in the 1960s (sadly lost after a number of moves). The developments in aircraft design and propulsion were fast and furious. Then commercial air travel steered away from speed. The Concorde never became a commercial success. The Boeing SST died before being built. Instead, driving down costs for the growth of cheaper air travel became paramount. Larger aircraft, more efficient engines, slightly slower speeds. This trend has continued ever since. There has been development of faster aircraft for the military, but the faster, highest-flying aircraft, the Lockheed SR-71 was first flown in 1964 and retired in 1990, nearly 30 years ago. It was ahead of its time and remains a personal favorite aircraft. I would argue the North American X-15 was also at the zenith of piloted rocket aircraft. Flying in the 1960s, with flights ending in 1968. Its successor the X-20 was never built. Although the Space Shuttle is considered a development based on the knowledge gained, it was a very different type of craft, and it too has been retired with no successor in sight. Had the space race not happened, we might just possibly have developed space planes instead of going the route of capsules launched on expendable rockets.

    But while transportation technology (ships, airplanes, cars) has clearly stagnated, that is not true of different areas of technology. Computers and software entered an exponential growth and development phase that is just now peaking, with a rapid flowering of designs as von Neumann architectures are reaching their limits. Biotechnology is just starting its exponential growth phase, with its founding circa 1972, less than 20 years after the elucidation of the structure of DNA, with extremely rapid growth after the human genome, was mapped.

    All technologies go through a logistic development phase and find their optimum market niches. It looks to me like a spacefaring civilization will have to wait for technology to develop sufficiently in both reduced costs and probably much higher performance. Reusability is key to cost. Performance may have to wait for compact, high specific power energy sources, ultra-lightweight PV arrays, beamed power for electric engines, or very different technology to gain the high velocities needed to make crewed spaceflight into deep space a truly viable approach.

    • wdk December 30, 2019, 22:26

      For reasons I need not go into today, I have been looking at rocket planes and horizontal take-off and landing for some time. Some of the stories are well known and some of the variations for operational effectiveness are intriguing, but it is the hardware program that delivers which will ultimately get the prize. With that preamble and skipping over the dialectic stuff, I would like to point out a rather neglected chapter: the NF-104 used to train USAF pilots for prospective flights to the edge of space. This vehicle was a modified F-104A supersonic fighter developed in the 1950s which is probably easily recognizable for its short wing span, pointed nose and T-tail. It flew up Mach 2 and was used by many air forces around the world.

      During a period in the early sixties to about 1970 several of these aircraft had small 6000-lb kerosene- peroxide rocket engines installed in their tails to take them up to 120,000 feet. The pilots maintained stability at high altitude in coast phase with a hand grip attitude control system based on additional thrusters, coasting back to the aerodynamic control region of the atmosphere at high angle of attack. At some attitude above 25,000 feet, they re-lighted the turbojet engine.

      There was a host of air force pilots that participated in this program and Robert Smith was one of the pioneer developers. Both he and Chuck Yeager have given detailed accounts of those days, the latter ending up as some of the stories collected by Thomas Wolfe in the book The Right Stuff. Suffice to say that Smith and Yeager disagreed on some technical issues. But I would like to take note of something that fell back into the background when Yeager made his fateful ascent and had to bail out. He survived, of course, and continued to test aircraft.

      That day, Yeager flew two rocket flights. One before lunch and one after. He ate lunch with his pressure suit on.

      That was over 50 years ago. It was the same plane with the same rocket engine and the same pilot.

      Other flight timelines, I cannot identify as clearly that tight, but two or three aircraft, it was possible to turn around repeatedly within a day or two. The longest hiatus was due to the crash over the issue of what constituted a safe flight profile.

      The X-15 performed much in accordance with the NF-104 model exploring flight profiles up to and exceeding Mach 6 or six times the speed of sound.

      So, over the past fifty or sixty years, what went wrong?

  • ole burde December 28, 2019, 16:38

    Another ,complementary explanation for the stagnation is , that in the Apollo Era , when a new mythology of space exploration COULD have emerged as the dominant cultural theme , another new Cutural Theme also where emerging , one that was stronger and better fit to become dominant …..and one that was totally non-compatible with the cultural content of the Space-mythology.
    Dont forget , we are talking about 1969 , the epicenter of the Cultural Revolution that changed western civilisation forever ….and the revolutionary change emerging (sometimes called Political Correctness) , resulted in a gradual , still
    ONGOING DECONSTRUCTION of the value-system on which Western Civiliisation was build ….in case of doubt see ´´Avatar´´ again ….only tall blue natives will be alowed in space now, so you better stay home , you EVIL Imperialist Earthmen !

    • Harold Shaw December 28, 2019, 22:55

      According to the logic you use to describe Avatar, every story of humanity fighting off alien invaders who are stripping the Earth of resources is a tragedy. I can not take your argument seriously except as an example of the toxic use of rhetoric and confirmation bias.

      Cultural mythologies can not survive deconstructionism for the same reasons incorrect or incomplete theories describing nature can not survive the scientific method. Declaring something is true or good or essential isn’t enough. The premise must be deconstructed and thoroughly tested.

      The cultural mythologies of balanced budgets, free markets and national security have been the dominate brakes on our efforts to become space faring.

      • ole burde December 29, 2019, 9:09

        ´´I cannot take your argument seriously except as …….toxic……´´…..well , in former centuries there used to be something called DEBATE , it involved having an Opponent , idealy with a completely different set of ideas …..in those days you were supposed to REFUTE the argument of your opponent , with a Counterargument …..but who need THAT when you are 100 % sure of occuping ´´the high moral ground´´ ?

        • Harold Shaw December 29, 2019, 17:16

          In this century and likely past centuries as well, when faced with a counter argument some people retreat into emotional bluster and accusations of persecution. Your approach to the movie Avatar creates a dilemma that looks like confirmation bias and I have challenged you to demonstrate that it does not.

    • Nick Nielsen December 29, 2019, 5:12

      It is a matter of some interest as to why some populations at some times spontaneously converge upon more complex, and therefore more difficult purposes, while other populations, or the same population at different times, spontaneously converge upon less complex purposes. The Space Race as a competition was the simplest of purposes—anyone can understand us-against-them—but executed in a uniquely complex social and technological context. One need not understand the technically complex context in order to get on board with the purpose of the Space Race. In this way, purposes of this kind are uniquely well adapted to advance the interests of technological civilizations.

      Whether we look upon the Space Race as complex or simple. it was, for a time, the focus of two technically sophisticated civilizations. The retreat from space and the narcissism and drug culture of the “me decade” that followed represents the triumph of individual appetites over social ideals. I don’t yet have a way to express this concisely, but I consider this to be a transition to a less complex and sophisticated social order.

      So, yes, sometimes when there are competing ideals present in a society, the easier and the more comfortable alternative wins out. In fact, this is one of the mechanisms by which civilizations fail.

      Best wishes,


      • Harold Shaw December 29, 2019, 19:24

        I think you are committing several over-generalizations and over-simplifications here. The counter culture of the 1960s can’t be just described as a rejection of social ideals when some of the social ideals being rejected – conscription, sexism, racism, and squandering money and lives on wars – were antisocial ideals. The global war on drugs, pathological nationalism, religiosity, and the distrust of science and expertise are all social ideals and all slow our progress towards becoming space faring. I would gamble everything that there are more people getting high and talking about space than people praying about space; that there are more hippies willing to pay for NASA than obsessed nationalists willing to pay for NASA. The growth in global capital that has allowed Musk and others to gamble on private space faring was generated by a free market enabling narcissism. Imo, the mythology most likely to propel humanity to the stars is the selfish myth of immortality and increased function offered by transhumanism.

        The space race energized society because both sides were competing against a civilization that embraced ideals antithetical to the other. The USSR lost because it embraced pathological social idealism and we won because the US embraced, arguably pathologically, free market narcissism. The US did also utilize social idealism but would have failed if that social idealism weren’t based on the premise of rewarding and encouraging individual agency. I am all for increasing NASAs budget but I can’t fault narcissistic terrestrialists for their narcissism when their pursuit of narcissistic pleasure is providing the capital and technologies required for explorers to venture into space.

        I am not as well versed as you in the concept of central projects. I would describe the institution of religion and the institution of hereditary rule as being examples of historical central projects. Neither can be held as examples of central projects that reliably advanced technological civilization. I don’t know if the democratization of property rights and the proliferation of individual agency can be considered central projects but they have done the most to advance technological civilization.

        • Nick Nielsen December 30, 2019, 6:04

          I found the term “central project” in Frank White and have developed the idea for my own uses, as an analytical tool for the study of civilization, so there’s not much to be versed in apart from what I’ve written about it. My view is that, however limited and inaccurate my model of civilization is, it is still better to have some model since criticism of the model can lead to incremental improvements and a better model over time.

          It has been on my mind for quite some time to write a systematic exposition of the idea of a central project and its role in human institutions, and I have several manuscripts devoted to this, but none are finished yet, so I cannot now point to a definitive exposition. But I’m working on it. However, one thing upon which I can be more definite, and something I’ve come to understand only since writing the above, is that the difficulty of identifying the central project of a civilization is intrinsic to civilization as the largest of all human institutions. The larger, the older, and the more sophisticated a civilization becomes, the more difficult it is to identify its central project because the central project becomes progressively more abstract and more complex over time, forced to become more complex by the complex social institutions it superintends. In fact, I think that one of the ways in which civilizations fail is when the central project becomes too abstract and too complex to maintain a coherent social body and to involve the average individual who is part of the civilization in question.

          The democratization of property rights and the proliferation of individual agency have indeed been significant forces in shaping western societies since the Enlightenment, and especially since the industrial revolution. However, I see these as ideas that tied up in the development of legal and social institutions of western civilization, and so primarily part of the conceptual framework that rationalizes and justifies the central project, and integral with the processes of the economic infrastructure.

          Best wishes,


  • craig watkins December 29, 2019, 17:34

    If we want a spacefaring civilization, then we need a clear plan and we need to know how to sell it to the taxpayers. I see neither of those things right now. I appreciate the effort here to make a case, but it’s not going to do well outside of space enthusiasts. Preaching to the choir isn’t going to do any good.

    The long term vision of humanity’s survival just doesn’t sell. We need to face up to that. It may be a great justification on a personal level for people who are already passionate about space, but that’s probably all it’s ever going to be.

    I don’t see us getting far in space until we can transcend or sufficiently tame nationalism, which lately seems to be on the rise. It’s just too big of a project for a single nation to undergo in the current political context. Nationalism was sufficient for the space race but it fizzled once it lost any real traction for promoting national interests. It’s likely a multinational and multigenerational project.

    IMHO, solving our earthly problems first isn’t just a priority, it’s actually a necessity. It’s sad because many of these problems seems intractable, but I think that is the reality. We have to start thinking of ourselves as humans more that Americans or Brits or Russians, etc… and when I say “we” I mean the vast majority of us.

    In the mean time we are left with incremental, cost effective improvements, and the hope that some game changing technology makes the goal much simpler to achieve.

    • Gary Wilson December 29, 2019, 20:30

      Well said Craig. Nationalism is on the rise, as is neo-fascism it appears. The goals of fascists are often nationalistic in the extreme. Take past examples such as Hitler, and Mussolini, and some present examples who I won’t name. They seek to impel people to retreat into nation states which only care about themselves.”X first” where you can replace X with the nation name of your choice. In order to escape our current disastrous trends we will have to unite as a species, probably even against our own governments which are leading us to disaster. I applaud Nick for his views on space exploration. It’s a brilliant article and it invites people to explore the future possibilities. Whatever you call the driving force required, it will have to inspire large numbers of people. I believe we won’t achieve the goal of a long duration phase of space exploration until nationalism is greatly reduced in its ability to create demagogues who function to poison the ability of people to speak freely to one another and to pursue goals other than those inspired by naked greed for power and financial gain.

      • Charley December 30, 2019, 1:08

        Nationalism is NOT on the rise – globalism is

        • Gary Wilson December 30, 2019, 22:37

          Are you sure Charlie? How do you feel about the leaders of Britain, the United States, and Russia? Are they globalists or nationalists? I’m genuinely interested to hear your thoughts. There are many more. Brazil, Hungary, and China to name but a few. They seek to weaken international organizations and promote hate of the other. NATO, the EU, and the United Nations have all been weakened in recent years. If we are to survive climate change the people of the world will have to work together to solve the problems which have caused the crisis. Personally, I don’t believe in national super powers. They have caused no end of grief and have us headed in the wrong direction. If we want to explore space, let’s do it together as a species. What are aliens (if they exist) to think of a species that murders and tortures its own?

          • Andrei January 3, 2020, 13:16

            That’s a very insightful post Gary.
            Thank you for pointing it out.
            Without international agreements we cannot access the problems we’re facing in any meaningful way.
            The worst part is that climate is just one of the quadruple whammy we’re facing right now. Though the most obvious as I write this on a day with +6C in the middle of the winter and wind like an October storm (normally at least -25C or lower and very still.)
            There’s also so much plastic in the oceans it’s now a serious threat, and various infections spreading like wildfire – among humans and wildlife alike.
            Latest one is B. salamandrivorans – that indeed spread like wildfire trough Germany and is expected to cause another mass death of amphibians.

  • Mike Serfas December 29, 2019, 17:40

    The Era of Stagnation runs roughly from the launch of Pioneer 11 toward its rendezvous with Saturn to the return of asteroid samples on the Hayabusa. It is the era that brought data from the boundary of interstellar space far beyond the orbit of Pluto, not to mention stunning images of Pluto itself, after every other major body in the system had been checked off the list.

    You are content to hold up Sputnik as a symbol of progress … aren’t Mars rovers and the Huygens lander also progress?

    Yes, manned exploration has suffered major setbacks. Part of that is because people don’t really want to be in space, or if they do, one part is about as good as another. We want pictures, we want samples, we want zero gee, we want drilling missions and seismographs and electroacoustic recordings and ideally large ingots of space metal making precise landings near ever-hungry factories. But we don’t really want much that we actually need to have our physical eye or ear in harm’s way to see.

    So there is a significant barrier before the next step of colonization is attempted. Yet it would never have worked in half-measure anyway, because you can’t have a moon base with half a person’s worth of life support or half a radiation shield. Meanwhile, industry has gradually put up so many thousands of satellites in Earth orbit that few people even have a decent count of them any more. The spacecraft are bigger, they VTOL, they reuse and recycle. After a needed pause what happens next could be as surprising a step forward as the race to the moon.

    • Nick Nielsen December 30, 2019, 5:24

      You’re right that half measures don’t work, and this is one of the factors keeping the costs of human space exploration high.

      Certainly Mars rovers and the Huygens spacecraft were progress—progress is robotic space exploration and in space science, but not progress in human space exploration or the establishment of a spacefaring civilization. Similarly, as others have noted in comments here, we have seen enormous gains in other areas of technology, most notably computer technology. These technologies are related to space exploration, but they are not identical with space exploration.

      As I noted in this essay, periodization always involves establishing some conventions, so that the Stagnant Era could well be defined in different ways, especially if one adopts distinct metrics. The Stagnant Era as I have defined it coincides with great advances in space science and consequent knowledge in cosmology. We know a lot more as a result of space science during the Stagnant Era, but that doesn’t put us closer to being a spacefaring civilization. As I argued in the above, a space-capable civilization that never makes a spacefaring breakout is consistent with a civilization with space-based assets and knowledge of cosmology.

      Best wishes,


      • Mike Serfas December 30, 2019, 13:18

        I actually remember the beginning of the “Era of Stagnation”. I was just turned loose on the nursery school, and half the kids wanted to be astronauts. And Tang was what the astronauts drank, so I wanted Mommy to get Tang, and after some pleading, she did. And at the precise moment that I discovered that this magical drink was something utterly horrible, the living incarnation of the taste of Artificial, I grokked something deeper: that the astronauts weren’t really in control – they were sent up in space and drank and did what other people told them to, in order to see what would happen. Soon I realized that NASA had sent up a monkey to see what would happen to the monkey and they had sent up people to see what would happen to the people. However young I was, I think this may reflect the zeitgeist at the end of the manned lunar program.

        Manned space exploration really needs to have a clear point. In 1969, robots could not pick up moon rocks or make many other observations … now they can. People talk about using Mars as a “backup planet”, but if survivalism is our motive, where are the Earth equivalents? Isn’t it easier and just as productive to build self-sustaining colonies under the rock and ice of Antarctica, or deep in mine shafts, or miles deep in the ocean, where after any K-T impact or nuclear war there is still plenty of oxygen, water, and organic material available? To explore, well… some human can wander around the surface of Mars with a rock chisel, but what can he do that a rover can’t? While a rover could have a hundred instruments that go beyond human senses. The viewer of these modern voyages is trapped behind the screen, of course – but the astronaut is himself trapped behind the barrier of the space suit. None of us want to truly touch Mars, unless we are ready to contaminate and be contaminated by the planet, the propriety of which we don’t have much agreement about. Now even (especially) a preschooler can understand the concept of standing on a hill and yelling “I’m king of the mountain!”, but how many mass-produced sacrifices of ill-prepared “explorers” need to be left atop Sagarmatha before we learn to look at this impulse askance? It may – it should – take more than that to divert billions of dollars away from first-ever instruments like JWST, which do true exploration, toward building a space colony.

        • Nick Nielsen January 2, 2020, 22:50

          Those who are comfortable in their armchairs will always look askanse at those who pursue adventure, excitement, danger, and risk for its own sake. And unless we breed it out of ourselves, or drug it out of ourselves, that will always be a part of the human condition. No doubt it defines a minority of the general population, but it is a minority that has an influence, because taking risks potentially upends the status quo. It will be individuals like this who pursue human space exploration as an end in itself. Once you start asking for a “clear point” you are already engaging in rationalization that is off-putting to those who engage in risky behavior; the only ones who are convinced by these rationalizations are those who don’t need convincing. They are happy in the armchairs.

          If we had a spacefaring civilization already—i.e., if we had experienced what I call an early spacefaring breakout—we would already have scientific instruments larger than, and therefore more sensitive than, the JWST. And we would have individuals on site, tinkering and repairing and upgrading in ways that can only be accomplished by those in daily contact with the hardware. They would be pushing the limits of exploration, whether human and otherwise, far beyond what we can do on the surface of Earth.

          Happy New Year!


  • Neil Stahl December 29, 2019, 21:31

    I’m afraid conservative, faith-not-reason-based religion has become so prevalent in America that we’re not likely to be able to agree widely on a sensible central project. We can work on one and work on one, then a dumbness-based administration will get elected and throw it all away because it’s not religiously correct. Like stopping global warming.

    • hiro January 1, 2020, 16:57

      Not totally true, global warming is still possible on the flat Earth due to the Hell’s fire heating up the plane from below, hence we have global warming! By using slogan like “owning the Satans”, one can brain-wash the mass population fighting global warming easily, if people believed Good Omens was real back in the 90s then it shouldn’t have any problem to sell this sh*t.

  • Project Studio December 30, 2019, 5:21

    Perspectives and notions of mythology, inflection points, central projects, and deep time are tools we can use to try to get the ‘big picture’ about humanity’s place in the Universe. Myth has been a longstanding means throughout the ages for people to gain implicit understanding and there is no cause to abandon myth now, although the attitudes we may hold about myths of the past may impair our ability to recognise the myths of the future. It’s quite possible that bards of the future on habitable exoplanets will sing epics about the intrepid adventures Space Family Robinson, the crew of the Enterprise, or the Rebel Alliance when the origins of those legends have been obscured by the mists of time. The myths are the source of our inspiration and motivation. They don’t have to be grounded in physical reality or historical time to be real to the human spirit. Sometimes the most unrealistic are more inspiring. Although the intervening space between planets and stars seems hostile and challenging I don’t see it being more so (considering our technical advantages) than the challenges facing Lapitian voyagers faring the Pacific thousands of years ago. I would like to know their myths.

    • Nick Nielsen January 2, 2020, 5:06

      Not only do myths not need to be grounded in physical reality or historical time, usually there is a clear break between the mundane world and the mythical world, and when a character enters into the mythical world that constitutes a clear break in the life of the individual making the transition from mundane world to mythic world. However, for the myth to be relevant to human beings, usually a human being needs to leave the human world, travel in the mythic world, and then return to the human world in order to share the wisdom gained in the other world. So there needs to be a human relevance and a human connection, which entails some meaningful connection to the world in which human beings came to be, though that can be a thin thread of connection, and the mythic world can be quite unrealistic and still retain our interest.

      Happy New Year!


  • Gary Wilson December 30, 2019, 22:45

    When looked at rationally, manned space exploration could be carried out with a tiny fraction of world GDP. In fact it has been calculated that the climate crisis could be averted with the expenditure of 3% of world GDP for several decades. Is the survival of our civilization worth this amount of money? I’ll let everyone come to their own conclusions on that one. Similarly I’m sure we could explore and establish permanent bases on Mars for a few hundred billion dollars, spent over the next 20 years or so (a tiny, tiny fraction of 1% of world GDP). Still the people must decide what they want to spend their taxpayer money on. Hundreds of billions or even trillions on armaments? The US spends more on its military industrial complex (remember the warning of Eisenhower) than the rest of the world combined. And look who is in charge of all that military might. Hmmm.

  • wdk December 31, 2019, 13:27

    Among the earlier comments, Alex Tolley had remarked about the episode in the TV series the Crown, in which Prince Philip had perhaps a hypothetical interview with the Apollo 11 astronauts. For people across the Atlantic from here the royal family, I suspect they seem like both familiar and remote family. And in this particular case, the Prince is 98 years of age and recently returned from a visit to the hospital. I should only wish him and his very extended family well and happiness.
    But since we are also talking about the motivations for traveling into space based on history and philosophy, I would still like to pick up some strands related to our earlier exchange.

    Nick Nielsen above has invoked many historians and philosophers who have used analytical means to examine their topics. There were also “mythologies” to invoke, but I would venture to add “metaphors”.

    Our discussion about a television episode in all likelihood fell into the metaphor category – and another such metaphor comes to mind from a philosopher of the era in which it occurred. Here in the States there was a San Francisco dockworker or longshoreman who wrote several collections of essays, most notably “The True Believer” and then “The Temper of Our Time”. The former book by Eric Hoffer was an examination of the roots of fanaticism, particularly in the 20th century.
    But he also had something to say about the landing on the moon.
    Like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, he believed it was another triumph of the same. And there’s the metaphor.

    Of course, there is some irony to this in as much as Apollo was a government project in which hundreds of thousands of common people participated in. Since the follow up was not immediate, one might think of it like a work of art – or else the American equivalent of constructing a pyramid without a Pharaoh inside.

    With mythologies and metaphors from science fiction and fantasy many of us presumed that the US had enough of such stuff to carry us over into a space-faring nation once solid evidence was provided that it could be done. I think our scientific establishment was probably less inclined. Iowa State University Professor Van Allen, for example, thought that the purpose of space exploration was to detect Van Allen Belts, obviously. For comparison consider the musings of Sergei Korolev or the Germans engineers who came to this country after the Second World War. They wanted to land on planets and live there. And in effect, the US after Sputnik picked up the institutional challenge of spaceflight as a dare.

    The images of the Earth from space helped launch a period of conservation and consciousness of the preciousness of the planet and its life. This cycled back into notions of conserving and recycling products. It is ironic in the midst of such movements that the lunar exploration vehicles could neither be recycled or reverse engineered by the people who built them. Twenty years or more have been used up
    in awaiting the opportunity of reinventing them under government auspices and another twenty years of struggling down that path vs. the twelve years to lunar landing after Sputnik.

    But still, the old technologies involved in the original and subsequent flights are becoming more widespread and technologies such as 3-D printing with high temperature alloys (!) are changing the picture for “costs per flight”. Like printing, computing and satellites, launch systems are becoming more commonplace.

    How does all this fit into the current topic? It took some time for Nick Nielsen to put his presentation together – and it will take some time to mull this over. Especially since we are all trying to figure out how we can obtain our aims in space. For one thing, what small part of Braudel’s work I have read, I have enjoyed. His History of Civilizations starts with an account of our present day notion of “civilizations”, now being plural and having roots in several languages centuries back. It is an evolved idea as described. But for the most part, in reading Braudel or others, we are speaking of where societies have been and not how historians and anthropologists can guide them to places to which a generation or segment of society might wish to arrive. If representatives in government and their standing armies of civil servants do not do that, then perhaps economists and bankers have a better chance. Reflecting on that, it appears that we do have present day captains of industry ( a la Ford and Rockefeller) who are very interested in this new frontier – and they have arisen from among the common people of which Eric Hoffer wrote.

    Perhaps we are living during the historical era of which so much science fiction was written decades ago. Can this mythology form today’s and tomorrow’s history? It is hard to say. If I had never read our myths of Mars, the Moon or beyond, would I look on the prospect of landing or exploring with the same sense of wonder? Well, no. It would somehow be different. As it is with worlds we had not even anticipated but are discovering now as exoplanet transits or faint atmospheric spectra or yet to be detected clues.

    Happy New Year.

  • Nick Nielsen January 2, 2020, 5:21

    Metaphor is one of the mechanisms of mythology. In mythology, we speak truths about our world in a metaphorical form. If in “the boldest inventions of legend and poetry, where animals speak and stars stand still, where men are turned to stone and trees turn into men, where the drowning haul themselves up out of swamps by their own topknots…” (Gottlob Frege, Foundations of Arithmetic, sec. 14), these transformations (which Ovid called metamorphoses) are not arbitrary. If a man is “turned to stone” this is telling you something about the internal emotive life of that individual, and what they meant (or failed to mean) to others. The exotic setting of mythology allows us to draw from a wider range of metaphors in characterizing human behavior. Science fiction has allowed us to do the same thing, by projecting human imagination into the cosmos and setting stories in locations as unreal as the settings of traditional mythology.

    The folk heroes of industrialization that you mention—Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc.—are part of an American mythology, which is also beautifully illustrated by Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. All of these have a part to play in the American myth. As these figures and themes are mythologized, they are also transformed so that they become representatives of archetypes and so are signposts on the hero’s journey. Once mythologized in this way, historical figures become perennial figures.

    Happy New Year!


  • Robin Datta January 2, 2020, 6:53

    Another possible cause for a Great Filter?
    Net Energy Cliff Will Lead to Collapse of Civilization

    • Mike Serfas January 2, 2020, 15:21

      According to that 2009 graph, as of 2020 total oil production is plummeting, with nearly half of the energy produced from oil wells already going into the last, desperate efforts to scrape out those last few barrels. :)

      • Gary Wilson January 2, 2020, 16:19

        In large part fracking and horizontal drilling is exacerbating the climate crisis. Now we have available trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and billions of barrels of previously unreachable oil. Another trillion barrels of oil (or a part equivalent in cubic feet of gas) will finish our civilization. Highly accurate climate modeling predictions if we carry on like we are of a 5-8 degree C increase in average global temperature with many, many areas becoming unlivable and sea level rising up to 200 feet. People optimistically speak on here about what might happen in the far future as far as human space exploration is concerned. I think we had better focus on the present and near future if we want a far future, otherwise our future myths might be about what we did now and how selfishness and greed led to disaster. How that would be portrayed I have no idea but it wouldn’t show the current human race in a positive light nor should it.

    • Alex Tolley January 3, 2020, 12:28

      With all due respect to Mr. Murphy and his 2009 analysis, he is wrong. While it is true oil exploration is getting harder and oil shale has very low net energy, new fields are being discovered, oil wells are being better drained, and natural gas is substituting for oil where heating and power generation is involved. His oil-centric analysis is just plain wrong.

      Paradoxically, it would be a good thing if he was right. This would force the oil majors into diversifying into other energy generating systems in a serious, rather than greenwashing way.

      An analysis that suggests that civilization will collapse without oil to maintain it is justifying fossil fuel use even as the planet burns. We need to employ every lever to decarbonize the economy as much as possible.

      • Gary Wilson January 3, 2020, 19:08

        Well said Alex. Why won’t people just read the data? There is a mountain of data on climate change and how it is proceeding. There is absolutely no excuse for spouting lies about it now. Actually there hasn’t been any excuse for decades. This is an absolute failure of our institutions and governments.

      • Mike Serfas January 4, 2020, 17:32

        Reading a mountain of data begins with a single abscissa. The Peak Oil myth has made some people think that they could simply do nothing and the problem would fix itself by market forces. The problem now is that some non-market force seems needed to nurture alternative energy, penalize further fossil fuel mining, or reward carbon capture/storage on a meaningful scale.

        Probably a crazy idea, but I was wondering recently whether poly(oxymethylene) polymer could be useful for sequestration. According to https://www.fire.tc.faa.gov/pdf/tn97-8.pdf it has a heat of combustion of 17 kJ versus 48 for polyethylene. That means if it is made from oil, in concept at least, about 64% of the hydrocarbon energy could be extracted, leaving a marketable plastic behind. Is it feasible to burn oil to polymer in an energy plant, with no gas emissions, and for some incentive to favor the use of this particular polymer over others?

  • Geoffrey Hillend January 2, 2020, 18:58

    I have to agree with WDK here due to my expertise at Jungian psychology at the advanced level. Jung wrote that all myths are dependent on archetypes which he considered to be an a priori aspect of the psyche, i.e., the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Consequently, our actions do not create myths even though they can predict our actions. The myths are evidence for archetypes which were in us from the beginning of consciousness before our actions and even before the human psyche.

    The imaging parts of the mind and brain began before man when the eye was created in the sea, and myth as archetype could be considered as instinct according to Jung. It takes the scientific intuition to see this, and it is an common assumption that myths are mere creations of man and we make them from the observations of our actions, but did we invent the limitations of reality and the physical principles, laws and rules or physics in our environment and nature’s potential to adapt to these or were these images and ideas already there before us.

    The idea that we make our myths seem to me limited to a world view which is too anthropomorphic or will centered which is limited to the rational, concrete mind trapped in form, boundaries, and the five senses and an extroverted orientation completely to the object and material. My point is that is important, but it is not all one needs to know to have a whole, holistic view and even a scientific one. Myths have been inspiring man since the dawn of civilization and consciousness in the form of religion, the products of the creative imagination, art, music, etc. Through the unconscious zeitgeist, fantasy and the creative imagination, faster than light travel and trips to the Moon, etc., were conceived before we knew the physics which made them possible.

    After the Apollo space program, we had a break because we did not have the technology to go to Mars cheaply. It is much more difficult to send a man to Mars than the Moon and the warm illusion that we could go there soon and easily gave way to a more realistic view. We had developed nuclear rockets engines, but the landing vehicle to land on the planet still today has not been designed. The atmosphere of Mars is thin, so it can’t be used as a break like here on Earth, but it is this enough to be a serious problem. A Mars landing vehicle needs a heat shield, and a lot of fuel or something to increase it’s atmospheric drag to slow it down from orbit.

    The 1950’s style art the of the winged Mars spacecraft in orbit around the Earth in this thread is the artwork by Chesley Bonestell from a book called “The Exploration of Mars,” published in 1956 I recall. It was completely illustrated with many paintings by Chesley Bonestell, one of my favorite space artists, for his realistic but inspiring creative art, but it is now long out of print. I checked it out from the main library when I was 16. I was still inspired by it because it had our old, common belief about the old Mars which had a thicker atmosphere, like 85 millibars and was thought to harbor life. It still inspired me because I wondered what it might be like to go to another world with life and a more habitable planet even though I knew the new Mars was not like that. I like to imagine myself taking a trip in those winged spacecraft and going to Mars. Now that same inspiration has been transferred to exoplanets as WDK has written.

    The inspiration for space travel was there first like a teleological meaning, an assent motif in Jungian psychology. It is humanity reaching for the stars, and that has a symbolism something like the evolution of consciousness to a higher level, not just technological, but psychological. One can have a theory of knowledge and how we perceive the universe. I can’t believe that there is an ET civilization that stagnates for it’s entire life without evolution and remains trapped in the Earthly and mundane. Consequently, I have to think that the need for meaning and transcendence is universal as well as the curiosity and desire to reach for the stars and to escape limitation which symbolizes freedom and higher level of consciousness. In Jungian and archetypal psychology there is a myth for consciousness and for the scientist and even science itself; Prometheus and Ouranos.

  • Alex Tolley January 3, 2020, 12:50

    Unlike most modern psychologists, Jung did not believe that experiments using natural science were the only means to gain an understanding of the human psyche. He saw as empirical evidence the world of dream, myth, and folklore as the promising road to deeper understanding and meaning.

    – source: Analytical Psychology.

    While Carl Jung is a distinguished man, his work is by definition, subjective, not empirical. He may be right, or he may be wrong. There is no way to tell. Knowledge gained without empirical results to attempt to falsify theories has generally proved worthless over time. From media criticism to philosophy, subjective ideas, however well-founded on logical architectures, are not grounded in truths and therefore should be considered suspect in this regard.

    The 1950’s style art the of the winged Mars spacecraft in orbit around the Earth in this thread is the artwork by Chesley Bonestell from a book called “The Exploration of Mars,” published in 1956

    I have that book in my library, sadly without a cover. It is both a part of my historic spaceflight and my space art library collections. Chesley Bonestell remains one of my favorite space artists. I suspect his spaceships have inspired the retro look of SpaceX’ Starship project. The Starship wouldn’t look out of place in his paintings or 1950s SciFi movies.

    I can’t believe that there is an ET civilization that stagnates for it’s entire life without evolution and remains trapped in the Earthly and mundane. Consequently, I have to think that the need for meaning and transcendence is universal as well as the curiosity and desire to reach for the stars and to escape limitation which symbolizes freedom and higher level of consciousness. In Jungian and archetypal psychology there is a myth for consciousness and for the scientist and even science itself; Prometheus and Ouranos.

    Which leads me back to my initial point. Human subjectivism is no basis for projecting onto ETI. It is no less speculative than believing that ETI must believe in a universal “God” and even that they had a “savior”. As a thought experiment, consider your beliefs should machine intelligence replace human intelligence and become our intellectual descendants. If ETI (or just some ET civs) followed that technological route, wouldn’t that impact your beliefs?

  • Geoffrey Hillend January 3, 2020, 18:59

    Jung claimed his insights were gained through empiricism many times, but since he studied a wide range of knowledge I doubt he did not get some ideas of what experiments would give promising results. Empiricism generally means study through experiment and observation which is not limited to physics. Just because something is not physically objective does not mean it is not useful or have truth. There are universal values, ideology, etc.

    My point is our ideas of what we think are not always objective but can be imaginary, so I agree with you Alex Tolley on that since nobody can be completely objective in their thinking, not even scientists who use the imagination without even knowing it when they make a theory which is why we have had the either theory and even part of Newton’s law of universal gravitation has been made obsolete by general relativity which says that there is no instantaneous action at a distance and time and space are relative to the observer and the matter and energy in the universe, so gravity moves at the speed of light and is not instantaneous.

    I have a hard time believing that an ET civilization has to die and the only thing left behind will be its machines and computers. This is certainly a possibility, but it has a negative, apocalyptic feeling to it and Jung would say it has a symbolism. The computer represents consciousness and even the scientific intuition, so there can be an unseen emotional aspect to over valuing machines and the computer something like human consciousness and even a supreme being born through the computer like ET Vigor on the 1979 Movie, Star Trek the Motion Picture. I am not saying it is impossible to have such computer intellectual descendants, but if we do I hope we also have intellectual human descendants that go alone with them with the hope than some of them might want a Warp Drive and to visit other star systems.

    We should not let computers do all our thinking for us, but with the present operational new quantum super computer at NASA, there is no doubt that we will become more dependent on computers for large calculations and breakthroughs in technology in our future which will be dependent on computers. I am not against the idea of technology being our salvation when it comes to our physical freedom, but not psychological and intellectual freedom and I predict like you that they will greatly improve the quality of our life in the future. I do not value the machine and computer over humanity so I can’t see any importance for a future without humanity. Computers and machines also don’t fulfill the need for meaning which one could call subjective, but everyone has that emotional need.

    We agree Jungian psychology is based on a more non material, psychological world view as opposed to a physical worldview like physical cosmology. Our so called subjective perceptions are not payed much attention if we only look outwards and not inwards. My point was that there is a myth for space travel and a space faring civilization and I don’t think we need to travel into space before we have one.

    Also, there is an idea to withdraw the unconscious projections from the object, which originate in the subject. This is useful for science, but it does tend to look a myth as not physical realities, but psychological realities. For example. I did this post for forum about Jungian psychology and Jungian theory on Kaleidoscope forum which opened in 2005 and closed in 2010. My conclusion was our imaginative images of what we think ET’s look like in film, movies, TV shoes etc,, the animals, sea creatures, insects and plants are really unconscious projections of the fear of our shadow’s and connection to primitive instinct through evolution and not what ET’s really look like in reality. What I am saying is that there is a symbolism to our drawing of ET’s and those large dark eyes would represent unconsciousness since dark eyes without pupils are needed for more light or are from a world of darkness. My hypothesis was that all ET’s must look like us or be humanoid and not like monsters from horror films, science fiction. This could be regarded as a science of symbolism and the subjective. I still like the movie ET, but I now am biased against it as far as appearances of ET’s go. Taking it a step further, we could say that all intelligent ETs look exactly like us, with the same DNA and physiology. This does not do much for myth and emotion, but it could turn out to be a correct prediction to the universal application of scientific principles which work everywhere in our universe. Science has already come to similar views and an analysis without myth and archetype which are not needed to come to the same conclusion, but myth is certainly more popular due to the emotional appeal which fulfills the need for psychological meaning. We agree that Jung did not limit his experiments to natural science for an understanding of the human psyche.

    • Alex Tolley January 5, 2020, 16:27

      My hypothesis was that all ET’s must look like us or be humanoid and not like monsters from horror films, science fiction. This could be regarded as a science of symbolism and the subjective.

      I am going to argue against the case of ETI being human[oid] but first I am going to argue the consequences of that assertion if it is true.

      Evolution is highly contingent. Humans are vertebrates and evolved from a very primitive organism that certainly had minimal “intelligence”. Yet that organism was the basis of the evolution of subsequence forms, from fish to amphibia, to reptiles, and then to mammals (and marsupials). The mammalian line led to old world monkeys and apes, and that lineage, most likely in E. Africa, led to humans. If human phenotypes, with associated psychology and social structure, are the only type that can lead to technological civilizations, then their likelihood of existing is based on a particular fluke of our evolution, and hence extremely rare. Could this argument be undermined by the idea of convergent evolution, e.g. the physical similarity of sharks, ichthyosaurs, and dolphins? I don’t think so for 2 reasons. That example of convergent evolution is based on the physical constraints imposed on animal propulsion in liquid water. Behaviorally, these animals are very different, with only dolphins [as far as we know] have a high level of intelligence. Secondly, no other lineage has emulated the humanoid form after many millions of years. If it was that successful to compete with other forms, we might expect the Dinosauria to have evolved at least one humanoid form over their very long time on Earth, but they didn’t.
      This means that if technological ETI exists, and if it must be human-like, then the consequence is that it must be very rare. Fermi Question solved.

      However, I don’t think that technological ETI must be human-like. It will have big brains. It will be able to manipulate objects with fine motor control of appendages that are as good as our hands, and will likely have eyes that can focus on the same object. But beyond that, there need be no convergence to huamn features. We also know that other lineages are quite intelligent, but lack teh key manipulative feature of humans. Corvids (e.g. crows), for example, seem to have good cognitive reasoning skills. But with just a beak and 2 clawed legs, they cannot manipulate objects as we do. Evolution would have to allow their wings to devolve back into grasping appendages. This might be possible, but we know of no bird that ever took this route, even those that became flightless, or evolved flippers.
      We also know that cephalopods have proven to have quite good inteligence, and their tentacles may just prove to be capable of manipulating objects on a par with human hands. An ETI that was a terrestrial cephalopod form might, therefore, be possible.

      I do agree that subjective media, like movies, depict aliens as monsters (like the “monster from the Id” in Forbidden Planet, but those depictions are not based on science, any more that the spaceships and technology in those movies. Kubrik (and Clarke) was very wise to avoid depicting aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey. At that time, actors in rubber suits, or magnified arthropods, were the common, but not exclusive, way to depict aliens. Kubrick wanted to avoid that. Subjective views on alien forms are not really valid. Even my argument (and more so yours) is based on the assumption of human superiority at this time and place, and our natural affiliation to our species. This may well be a bias that impacts our argument logic. What we do think is that we can design machines that are far more capable of manipulating objects than we are, over a far wider range of scale. Whether life can evolve in a similar fashion to our designs is unknown, but if they can, the humanoid form for ETI would be falsified.

  • Geoffrey Hillend January 4, 2020, 17:48

    The thought experiment or idea of intellectual machine descendants has a connotation or overtones to it which is the potential anthropomorphism of computers and machines. The unconscious projection which might be needed to be withdrawn is the idea the computers can have consciousness, free will and creative thought. It might be that only the psyche can only work through a human brain or living things like humanoids and animals which can have consciousness and free will, but not computers. There is artificial intelligence for computers which will improve in the future, but will they ever have consciousness? My intuition tells me no. I am limited my prediction to psychological principles as well as physical ones. It still is good science fiction though and scientists can learn something making AI.

    • Alex Tolley January 5, 2020, 16:37

      Does intelligence even require consciousness, or can intelligence be [philosophical] zombies?? Having said that, the argument that consciousness can only operate on wetware brains is, IMO, false. Even if our von Neuman architectures built with semiconductor material prove impossible to harbor consciousness (and I am not saying that is teh case), there are other possible architectures and substrates that are much closer to our wetware that may do. How close to our wetware it needs to be would then be the issue. There are indications that even honeybees have a rudimentary self-awareness, which indicates to me that consciousness is not limited to vertebrate brains and only definitely confirmed in humans. Daniel Dennett may even be partially/largely correct that consciousness arises from feedback where the brain takes internal inputs and processes these. We also know from fMRI studies when humans lose consciousness under anesthesia, indicating that it is not a fundamental thing, but has to do with what capabilities the brain has left as the neural firing diminishes as the anesthesia increases.

  • Geoffrey Hillend January 6, 2020, 18:50

    My speculation is that computers can’t have a creative imagination or mythologize and also can’t have free will and consciousness. I am not saying that consciousness is limited to electro chemical reactions such as those in neurons in the brain. I believe it is the opposite, that consciousness is not limited to the material and physical, but is also non material and psychic, otherwise our brains would really be nothing more than electro chemical reactions and we really would be only robots or zombies completely controlled by chemical reactions with no free will. A zombie is a symbol for something without consciousness and free will and intelligence according to Jungian psychology if that is what you mean by “philosophical zombies.”

    Transpersonal and depth psychologists and some philosophers agree with the view that consciousness is not supervenient on the physical and materialism thinks it is limited to the material. It does depend on what one’s world view and ideology is. I agree with this thread in the importance of myth. I don’t think we can do without it considering the principles archetypal psychology, etc.

    I agree that the word intelligence does not apply only to consciousness since we already have super computers or combinations of many computers which have been programmed to be intelligent or answer questions given to them from programming and the knowledge base put into them.

  • Alex Tolley January 6, 2020, 23:50

    I believe it is the opposite, that consciousness is not limited to the material and physical, but is also non material and psychic

    We are straying far from teh subject. What you are saying is that mind is separate from the brain. AFAIK, that mind-brain dualism has long been discredited.

    (…) brains would really be nothing more than electro chemical reactions and we really would be only robots or zombies completely controlled by chemical reactions with no free will. A zombie is a symbol for something without consciousness and free will and intelligence according to Jungian psychology if that is what you mean by “philosophical zombies.”

    We agree on teh meaning of the term zombie. I wanted to make sure it was not confused with the popular idea of brain-eaters in such tv as “The Walking Dead” and the many zombie movies.
    However, I disagree with your statement that without a separate mind, we would be zombies without consciousness or free-will. Dennett would argue we have no free will, based on the fact that we perceive our actions about 1/3rd of a second after we act (or make decisions). This suggests we just confabulate a story to explain our actions, and hence free-will does not exist. We do have consciousness, as we believe some animals do, but that is not due to a separate mind, but probably how our brains work. With a mind-brain dualism, you then have to explain where the mind goes when we are unconscious. With a mind that is an emergent property of the brain’s neural mechanism, that becomes a non-problem, as we can show that the neural processing shuts down to low levels during unconsciousness and that we have a very different EEG pattern.

    BTW, Peter Watts has an intelligent but unconscious alien in his novel Blindsight.

  • Ronald January 7, 2020, 6:25

    A belated happy new year to all and in particular to Paul. Keep up the good work, and may 2020 be filled with many fascinating new discoveries, particularly terrestrial planets orbiting in the HZ of (solar type) stars.

    • Paul Gilster January 7, 2020, 8:02

      And the same to you, my friend. Thank you for your long support!

  • Geoffrey Hillend January 7, 2020, 19:55

    Like you Allex Tolley, I don’t think all aspects of the brain are limited to conscious control and the will. One can still consciously control something and make a personal choice and think it is free will, but it might not be since in Jungian psychology and even philosophy, the idea of free will always brings up epistemology, and teleology or how knowledge is acquired and the limited knowledge base and type of world view of the observing subject.

    Your example of Dennett’s projected backwards in time experiment which I am already familiar does not mean we don’t have any free will. The idea of free will is not limited to the physical responses and physical actions from the external environment. Also, one opposite does not cancel out the other psychologically since one can have free will, and also a lack of free will simultaneously.

    There are thought processes which are considered to be not under the control of the will which is how Jungian psychology views the unconscious. For example, left brain, relaxed states or alpha states of the brain can produce images since the left brain is more imaginary. This could be considered the creative aspect of the mind. This process does not mean one can’t have any free will which might be limited to a certain area.

    Just because there is a casual connection of the mind to the brain does not mean there is not something that goes beyond it that the brain might be able to access which might be more the subject of parapsychology, metaphysics, philosophy, etc. My point is the mind, body problem is limited to the physical, material and does not include a world view that might be beyond the material. This is not a subject of study for the material sciences, but from my own personal experience, and knowledge base I can corroborate with the depth psychologist, etc., that one has to have a broader world view than the physical sciences to judge and understand the value of myth.

  • Robert A L January 12, 2020, 18:13

    It was Arginusae, not Aegospotami, after which the generals were executed.