Friday, 3 February 2012

Space, and why I could never be a speechwriter

Not so long ago I set out to write a few speeches. The reasoning was that there exists a huge backlog of speeches recorded throughout history, all of them written with incredible care by intelligent people with the express purpose of inspiring emotions, of rousing people. If I wanted to be able to do the same with my writing, well then I figured this was a good place to start.

I tried to read as much as I could about their construction, listened to them being read aloud, tried to learn a few by heart and even re-watched whole sections of West Wing. Ultimately though, the point where my passion fell apart was when I tried to write one myself.

I decided that I wanted to write about space, about why we ought to go into space, to try and express all the reasons why that is inspiring to me and impart it in a way which was inspiring to others. For a week or so I didn't think about much else, I just detailed my plan, went over how exactly to express certain sections, looked up various facts. Then, suddenly, I found I had to stop. The problem was, that I was getting too inspired, too excited, by my own fantastical rhetoric. During the day, particularly in long meetings, that is a welcome distraction, but I was also losing out on a significant amount of sleep just from lying in bed thinking about these ideas and working them over in my head.

So, that's why I could never be a speechwriter. I can imagine writing inspiring language, but the moment I do I get a little too inspired myself. I don't think it's something I could ever do dispassionately (writing occasionally effects me in a similar way, if I'm writing a particularly sad scene I might find I'm quite down for a few days, but the effect is never so pronounced).

Still, these ideas have been sitting fermenting in my head for such a long time now, waiting for some kind of outlet. I feel that it's only be right for me to give them that, even if not in the originally intended form. Without any further faffing then, here is my argument for why we should go into space.

Whenever people question the value of our continued excursions into space there are a number of justifications which get used. I thought I should start by pointing out how I disagree with most of these.

First off there's the argument that it leads to all sorts of innovation, normally followed by a list of the things for which we have the space program to thank. Honestly I don't think this argument holds up to much scrutiny. If the research we did to get into space happened to produce some useful offshoots, then surely more directed research (into... feeding the world more efficiently say) would have produced far more. You could just as easily make this argument about both world wars, which for me says it all, just because some good came from something does not make that thing worthwhile as a whole.

Secondly people often make the argument that we need space colonisation to ensure our safety from destruction. That the Earth could get taken out by a rogue asteroid any day now and the only way to be certain of the survival of the human race is if spread ourselves over on a number of different planets. Honestly if we were closer to colonising other planets I think this would make sense, but the fact is that we are so far away from that possibility that it doesn't seem worth it. If we look at, say, our percentage chance of surviving the next thousand years. Then every million spent on space travel probably has a negligibly small effect on this chance. Whereas spending that money elsewhere would, again, have a much more appreciable effect.

The final point people normally make is that we are natural explorers. That we've covered the majority of the surface of our own planet and this is the obvious next frontier for us to venture into. I probably have the most sympathy for this argument, and my own bears some similarities, but I still feel it is somewhat flawed. Specifically because if we really are to look at exploring as something intrinsic to humanity, as something which we need and love, then why do we need to make an argument for space travel. Surely it should just come about organically in the same way that it did with the rest of our famous explorations, with people racing to reach the next big boundary.

I should say, in many ways I think my own argument is aligned with each of these three. My main objection is the way that they are usually presented, as purely utilitarian, when actually I think space travel is anything but that. It's something more, it doesn't simply plod us forward, it inspires us and raises us up.

Throughout human history it's possible to pick out any number of examples of real inspiration. The plays of William Shakespeare, which inspired so many further works of literature, of stage and screen, copying and expanding on the original. The great conquests of Alexander the great, which inspired later leaders throughout history. The humanity and daring of Oskar Schindler, and so many others, in working to save other humans in danger without regard for themselves. All of these things are stories which we tell and which, in turn, lead on to more of the same.

I should be clear, I'm not saying that modern literature was entirely born from Shakespeare, but I'm saying that having clear and powerful figures like this provides a more constant movement and direction. That, in part, people's actions often have their seed in previous examples.

Space exploration provides this as well. From scientists, who've studied their whole lives simply because they want to be involved in something that big, to more casual stargazers, who are constantly amazed and uplifted by the mere fact of its existence.

Space does something more though. You see with all of the previous examples there is an obvious tie in to some singular theme. There is one genius or one country or one particular belief system which is intrinsic to the inspirational factors. If I'm not from the right place, or I don't believe the right thing, or I don't think I have quite a clever enough brain, then these examples could work against me and leave me cold. Space exploration doesn't have this flaw, it is a purely inspirational act, a brute force example of the grand success of human progress. It doesn't just represent one set of people, because the stars belong to us all, because everyone can see and appreciate the sheer energy of a rocket lifting into space and the delicate nature of an astronaut silhouetted against his planet far below.

To put it another way, space is like dinosaurs. It is impossible to see a picture of a T-Rex next to a man and not be deeply aware of the awful destructive forces at play there. The same is true of space. That's why I think these two things are probably the only constants on children's walls all across the world. Pop stars are changeable brief little things, but our fragile ventures into space will always have an immutable reality which is powerful no matter where you live.

There's the story Carl Sagan tells that there were tribes in New Guinea who had almost no contact with humanity, who didn't understand or care about any modern technology, but who were deeply invested in the fact that men had walked on the moon.

It doesn't even seem to matter who landed on the moon first. Even people alive at the time talk about seeing the first man on the moon, not the first American. Somehow I feel that these greater travels into the stars, which we've spent so many thousands of years looking up at, simply cannot be claimed for just one person or country.

Through our progress in space, possibly more than any other human achievement, I believe we have advanced the progress of human society. We have given ourselves something to look up to, an achievement which is frighteningly tangible in the way it expresses our raw potential. It is hard not to see how that knowledge would change the lives of every human being, not just the scientists and explorers, but every person who, with the knowledge of what we have done, can stare at the night sky and dream not just of tomorrow and the dangers it brings, but of a far distant future and a place among the stars.

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