by Damien Williams
A shot from Felix Baumgartner's epic jump.
The government sees space as a possible warzone.
At about 39 minutes into the Oct. 22 debate, the president says that we need to be looking toward cyber-security and space as the military concerns of the future. Now, the budget of NASA has been partially under the remit of the Air Force since its inception and the borders between the two groups (three if you count the Jet Propulsion Laboratories) are very, very porous. NASA shuttle capabilities have been used for defense satellite placement, and defense scientists lent a hand to civilian projects and research (e.g. NEAT).
Now, ever since the Reagan administration — when some clever idiot decided to reference a series of then-popular movies — the public has known that military interests have had a very clear presence in space and satellite creation. This all started even further back than then, actually, as the entire reason humans went to space in the first place was the Cold War Era pissing contest which found its pinnacle in Mutually Assured Destruction.
It was this MADness that spread out and infected everyone born or raised under its auspices, and so we get a space race and Star Wars. So it isn't really news that "Future US Military Concerns Will Have To Look At Space," or whatever it was the President said. What's surprising is that we have the first President in nearly 24 years who's gone about saying as much, whose specifically stated military agenda have included space.
But is it really that surprising, when we think about it?
Two weeks ago, Saturday, the RedBull Stratos achieved the ascent via hi-tech-balloon-and-modded-space-capsule and the descent via sheer-unmitigated-gall of one Felix Baumgartner. Baumgartner returned to Earth from a distance of 128,100 ft. (that's 24 miles), protected by nothing more than a NASA-issue spacesuit, and a will to do something tremendously stupid and world-shaking.
Felix broke the sound barrier in freefall and managed not to pass out, black out, or turn into a spacesuit filled with chunky meat salsa or a very small, very disgusting crater. In fact, Baumgartner pulled his own chute (they had an automatic release available, just in case) and walked in his landing.
Eight million people cheered out collectively, and the military made a bit of a face. But Felix Baumgartner using RedBull money to go to just under orbit isn't the only thing that has the government wanting to shore up its Mil-Tech/Aerospace ties; NASA has a new partner too.
The successful launch-and-dock of private space transportation firm SpaceX's Dragon capsule did a couple of wonderful things for NASA at just the right moment. Just as NASA's budget was being severely reduced, along came this private company willing to work on a contract basis to deliver into space cargo like food and equipment, but, eventually, people too.
This allowed NASA to cut their expenditures for crewed and uncrewed missions to the point where all they had to worry about was covering the check. Their more long-term partner, on the other hand, just had a bit of a nightmare come true: non-governmental civilians can now get all the way into space. Instantly, this means that someone is thinking about the possibility of a terrorist actor getting their hands on a Dragon knockoff, filling it with uranium, and launching it on an orbital arc that has it dispersing its payload over a major populated area. We have defense satellites, but most of those are pointed down, not up and out.
So now the military has to be seriously concerned with existential threats stemming from one of humanity's primary sources of existential dread. We must, as the President has it, look to space. And apparently we must be afraid, when we do.
Why? There are amazing things happening in our world, which demand our awe, wonder, and continued attention. Space is an indelible part of our Zeitgeist, now-- part of the current which sweeps us along and animates us. There are albums about and incorporating the physical artifacts of space, space scientists becoming celebrities, and private companies managing to get more humans into space. All of this is unsettling and disturbing, but it's not terrifying-- It's Terrific.
Sure, both words imply that thrill of being on the edge of something, that anticipatory "what happens next?" but where one mandates dread, the other incites wonder. Now, Pretenders, here: what some people will attempt to do with this amazing technological capability is enough to make you sick (emotionally and physically). People are seemingly always more willing to fire a rocket at someone than they are to send it somewhere. So we talk about what it means that people other than ourselves have the kinds of tech that we have, and we plan for what to do if they try to use that tech. But we don't have to focus on it as "threat" or as "military concern."
We can take the steps to educate people as to what they, personally, get from scientific advancement, and then fold that into a broader humanitarian concern. And besides, there are major advancements being made in technology, right now — things which are more potentially terrifying, by far, than the idea of Space Hitler. Happening in the world, right now, are human genome manipulation, the creation of synthetic biological life, advances in autonomous created intelligence ("artificial intelligence"), and the manipulation of existing biological lifeforms such as viruses and bacteria.
All of these things are possibly deadly — existentially threatening — and ontologically shocking, but they are also so alien to the concerns of the traditionally-considered "everyday person" (read "voter") that, upon hearing about them, said person would either A) be completely incapable of processing this new paradigm of information, or B) fall into a gibbering mass at the sheer horror of the possibilities. Or both. It could always be both.
Either way, they likely wouldn't see the opportunities and advancements possible there, and would instead just see the fear. Space has the possibility of more directly inspiring and driving people toward interest in exploration and research. Space can bring out the best in people, because they are already primed to be awed by it.
But the more we focus on the military aspects of space threats, the more we make it likely that we'll both face those threats and only think of them when we think of space. The efforts to bring about a public discourse on science and technology have always highlighted our fractured, ambivalent relationship with these things.
In the coming days I'm going to make an attempt to talk coherently about the divide and interplay between our desire to advance, and our fear of anyone else doing the same. Because you're all thinking about it, I thought we'd start with space.