NASA’s annual budget sank like a stone from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.
It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.
Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Tom Wolfe describes the Apollo program, born of desperation in what was perceived as lagging military competition with the Soviets, as having ended in aimlessness the moment Armstrong set foot on the moon assuring "victory" for the US. What the program really needed, Wolfe suggests, was a "philosopher corps," or a more sophisticated examination and articulation of purpose and meaning which remains absent to date: