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Glory Above the Heavens
Space exploration offers a path to the rejuvenation of our national spirit. By Marcus Porcius Cato
In November of next year, if all goes according to plan, an over fifty-year hiatus in spaceflight will end: Americans will once more leave this pale blue dot behind and enter lunar orbit. The mission, the second of NASA’s Artemis program, is the next step in creating a manned satellite for the Moon: the Lunar Gateway, which will provide a platform for scientific research and assist in future spaceflight operations beyond Earth’s orbit.
This mission offers a rare point of optimism for those of us concerned with the project of American civic renewal. Consider the circumstances under which America finally won the Space Race. The turmoil of the sixties, which gave occasion to the Sexual Revolution and the so-called Great Society, did serious damage to American civilization. Popular resistance to the Vietnam War prevented America from recognizing a new generation of heroes. Instead, Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” was the last gasp of the culture we were so intent on leaving behind. Yet almost all appreciated it; almost all saw the glory in the accomplishment. The television, which has done its part to melt the American mind, is at least partially redeemed by the fact that it allowed proof that modernity had not made obsolete the very idea of greatness.
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A century defined by the pyrrhic triumph of reason, which enabled man to engage in mass cruelties of which the ancient tyrants would have been jealous, was punctuated by this singular achievement. The Apollo rockets were functional and, visually at least, simple. Their beauty came not from immediate aesthetic considerations but because they symbolized the heights of the human spirit. Thumos, which had suffered a grievous blow in the trenches of the First World War, had not been dispatched by the Second. Men that crossed the seas to wage war returned home and set their gaze upon the stars; the technology that had rained hellfire upon Antwerp and London became the vessel for humanity’s grand entrance into the cosmos.
The Apollo missions were followed by the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. These remain engineering marvels, but they should only have been outposts on the way to something greater. Instead, having finally begun to explore our cosmic backyard, we now content ourselves with resting on the back porch.
But American identity has always been shaped by the desire to bring civilization to far-off lands. We were settled by men and women who sought to wrest from the wilderness a city on a hill. Among the colonial grievances against the Crown was the Proclamation of 1763 that attempted to prevent Americans from settling beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Much of the 19th century was defined by efforts to bring the West into the Republic under the framework of Manifest Destiny. Is it any surprise that, other than the mid-century annexation of a few uninhabited Pacific islands, American expansion outside the continent began in earnest almost as soon as the Census Bureau declared the frontier closed?
Let us return to the frontier. If the Earth has been charted and its territory claimed, we must explore the stars.
Indeed, the history of the West has been marked by one nation or empire after another that took as its sacred task the establishment of order across the known world.1 Some survived longer than others, some were better attuned to the natural law than others, but from Macedon and Rome on down, all embraced this duty. America’s sphere of responsibility has grown from our continent to the hemisphere and then the globe. Global leadership now tires us, but there is no respite to be gained in surrendering it, only the pall that has always come over nations that lay down this mantle. America will grow, or it will die.
Now we have constructed (and justly so) an international system that denies us the ability simply to absorb new territory in the way we once did. Where we intervene, we do so to establish among the people we conquer republics of their own. Yet if we now deny the legitimacy of conquest, the American spirit has not yet quieted its restlessness. There are few that find themselves satisfied by the prospect of remaining home and tending to one’s roots. We run around the country seeking opportunity and self-discovery, but joining a pre-existing community is not quite the same as taming the wild or imposing order on manmade chaos. There have been worse reactions to this change than mere capitalist fervor, of course. Some now march forth into digital dreamlands, finally finding places that are infinitely malleable—but one recalls Achilles’ warning that it would be better to be an earthly slave than a king among shadows. We were shaped not merely by the availability of free land and the opportunity to build our futures upon it but also the struggles inherent in doing so. Others see a source of civic invigoration in wars with Russia, China, or one another, but all of these threaten to end the project of American civilization entirely.
Rather than trusting Oculus and Meta—or muddy battlefields and watery graves—to channel the pent-up energies of a continent, let us return to the frontier. If the Earth has been charted and its territory claimed, we must explore the stars. NASA’s Artemis missions propose to return us to the Moon. Good—but not good enough. We must push beyond that which has already been done; we should establish scientific bases and lay the groundwork for future settlement. Beyond that, Mars beckons.
Some argue that America is not prepared for such things; it cannot afford them. The spirit of the isolationists in foreign affairs also drives some to contend that we need to address problems on the home front before investing in extraterrestrial exploration. Similar objections were raised to the Apollo program. The then-popular spoken-word poem “Whitey’s on the Moon,” in addition to its critique of the astronaut corps as racially homogenous, suggested that the need for measures to alleviate poverty should have overridden our desire for a space program. Of course, the space program has spun off countless inventions, like new food safety protocols, that have improved the life of the average person,2 but leave the debate over NASA’s economic efficiency for another time. These kinds of arguments miss the fact that we most need great symbols of national unity and strength precisely when we are divided. Space exploration is not a distraction from terrestrial concerns—we need to believe we are capable of great things if we are to address kitchen-table issues.
Let our children wonder at the stars. Encourage them to make heroes once more of explorers and innovators and dedicate themselves to developing the skill and character necessary to tame the galaxy. Let every citizen see himself as a vital part of a common project worthy of our civilization’s attention. Awaken these dreams in the hearts of men and see if you aren’t proud to be their countryman.
These giant leaps start with small steps. When the time finally comes for Americans to slip the surly bonds of Earth once more, keep the names of Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch, and their Canadian crewmate Jeremy Hansen firmly in your prayers.
A version of this article originally appeared in Prometheus Now, the September 2023 print issue of the Salient.
The Apollo 11 mission illustrates this unity of national and global interests: Armstrong and Aldrin “came in peace for all mankind,” but did so bearing the symbol of the Stars and Stripes.
Loura Hall, “Going to the Moon Was Hard—But the Benefits Were Huge, for All of Us,” NASA, July 15, 2019.