Friday, August 3, 2012

Curiously seeking Red Mars

On Monday morning (European time) NASA's Curiousity rover will (hopefully) touch down on the surface of Mars and begin its robotic, semi-autonomous exploration of the Red Planet. I bascially want to say that this is awesome and should be something that excites every Socialist and progressive out there.

There are those that criticise the Space Programme as either (i) a massive waste of money (ii) an imperial hang-up from the Cold War aimed at increasing national prestige. While (ii) is definitely true and (i) can be a useful propaganda point in the right context, its not acceptable (not to mention undialectical) to simply write off space exploration on this basis. Worse still is those who write off space exploration per se and see it as some sort of geekery/impossible abstraction. The second group in particular can sound plausible by arguing that sorting out Humanity's ills on Earth has to be the first step before we even start thinking about anything else.

To those people, I think there is a very simple reply - we have to offer a vision of wholly different existence for humanity in order to balance the vision offered by the current Capitalist society. This isn't an argument for lemonade seas and utopian socialism but it is an argument that we should point out the possible and the likely in future human development. Gene therapies that stop and reduce ageing, the colonisationation of our solar system, artificial intelligence (though I personally think artificial conciousness is a longer way off), cures for cancer, clean power generation, a freely accessible information net, etc, are all things within our power now or within near sight, if society was organised more logically.

As Engels pointed out at Marx's graveside "mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion." So, arguments about food distribution and the equal sharing of the neccessities of life are still key when it comes to condemning the heartless anarchy of the system and highlighting what the possible alternative is. But we want both bread and roses, so we can't ignore the immediate future of socialist society on Earth - that would, undeniably, involve space travel, colonisations of other worlds, even terraforming them. To give this up is to produce an austere vision of the future socialist society.

That is why I think all socialists should be hoping that the Curiosity rover lands successfully and all those who want to see a real exploration of the cosmos should be picking up their Communist Manifestos.

1 comment:

  1. I think revolutionary socialists need a more naunced critique of space exploration than this. I'd start by sharing the absolute amazement and excitement of the Mars Curiosity probe, and indeed all the robot landers since Viking. I think we should point out the relative low cost of probes like this, compared to say, the cost of the Olympics, war in Afghanistan and the bailouts of the banks. These missions are impressive because they are a example of the ingenuity of humans, a celebration of our desire to understand the world and to shape and explore the universe.

    Nonetheless, there are contradictory aspects to the space program (and large science projects like CERN in general). The space race was not born out of the desire to understand the world, but our of the competition of two blocks of imperialism. The race to the moon was not to understand it, but to put on over the Cold War enemies. That's why only one of the lunanauts was a scientist, and in part why there has been no return to the moon.

    The choice of space exploration or feeding the starving, is as you say a false one. Its not a valid choice. We should be chosing between arms manufacturing and feeding the world, or bank bonuses and ending homelessness.

    However it is one thing arguing like that for robotic space probes. Is it also true of human exploration? The cost of putting a human on Mars is likely to be several hundreds of billions of dollars. It's one thing pledging 2.5billion to put a robot there, it's another pledging that sort of cash for, effectively, a scientific vanity project.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the idea that humans have stood on the moon. I dream that one day we'll return and explore the planets. But I don't think that we would argue for such an enormous use of cash given the problems of society today.