Religion: a shield in democracy’s arsenal of narratives


SpaceX has announced plans to send two citizens on a flight around the moon next year.

When they make the trip, I’ll pay special attention to the words they will utter as they retrace a journey made half a century earlier by NASA.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the words are more banal, more exclamatory, than the NASA trip on Christmas Eve 1968.

During that mission, ahead of the lunar landing the following year, NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders recited verses from the Bible, from Genesis, the creation story.

Watching the grainy video now, the Bible verses with the imagery of the moon passing below, the moment seemed one of pure transcendence.

Humanity simultaneously making history while repeating the story of its own origin, drawn from a religious narrative.

Going into the unknown, these astronauts were armed with technology, courage, but also a storyline that could help them frame the much bigger and thornier questions about human existence.

This comes to mind today learning that one of the dimensions of Russian propaganda, which is dividing the West, is “spiritual.”

It recalls how a basic religious story underpinned, guided or at least informed so much of what happened in the US only 50 years ago.

The Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington. Cesar Chavez and the Latino Farm Workers. Even the morality of LBJ’s Great Society.

Religions provided a collective path of understanding for the public. Where politics and politicians and parties failed, there was the moral system of religion. That system was told in story, parable and gospel. There was a shared narrative to help bind a divided society.

As the Reverend Martin Luther King said in his famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Religion provided a path into the unknown, a dotted line of direction even if it couldn’t offer specific driving instructions.

By religion, I don’t mean the fundamentalism that itself is a form of weaponized narrative today, providing certainty at the cost of rationality.

Rather, I mean religion that acts as one more source of commonality in the broader current of a democratic society.

This is an important distinction to make because recently the West is facing a confusion of the narratives that have long sustained it.

The confusion is driven by a confluence of factors. Secularization is one element. The rise of the New Atheism is also part of it, too.

The notion of progress has become confused with snuffing out our own religious heritage, and with it a societal imagination that lets us transcend differences and uncertainty.

This is occurring as the underlying stories we’ve long relied on, are changing.

Religion was once part of a bigger story: Jim Morrison speaking with a minister in 1960s

Technology is another factor. The shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on information has seen whole industries evaporate. The path to prosperity for the middle class is unclear.

The sense of community and continuity once promised by geographical proximity have been disrupted by technology that makes us aware of other cultures contrary to our own.

The internet has, for now at least, misplaced the centers of broad consensus in democracy – and it’s not clear where the new centers will emerge.

Streams of news and information are accelerating and altering our ability to understand what exactly is going on in the world.

As Douglas Rushkoff notes, “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always on.”

The ability to know what’s happening elsewhere in the world instantaneously disrupts – and for some – threatens their own sense of security.

This state of information overload has created new possibilities for confusion and manipulation – and this is an area both militant jihadists and Russian information strategists exploit.

If there is no shared narrative we’re living in today, it’s hard for society to picture a cohesive future.

For that reason, there is an urgency today to regain a shared narrative.

Reverend Martin Luther King

That’s because the lack of a shared positive narrative has created a vacuum being filled by weaponized narratives confected by organizations opposed to democracy, such as the Kremlin and radicalizing jihadists.

Weaponized narratives “seek to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms,” write Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau.

They work by exploiting the human response to daily information overload by providing “emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding.”

In a pre-internet time, a positive storyline that explained ourselves and purpose to ourselves, helped explain the function of a pluralistic democracy in which many voices came together for the common purpose of our nation and society.

Today, without even the basic common story of a broad middle it is increasingly hard to counteract such weaponized narratives used to fragment our society.

With a post-factual but deeply emotional understanding of the world around, those who are sold on these narratives can be guided into positions that are fundamentally contrary to Western democracies. Jihadism. Political radicalism. Ethnonationalism.

This has been under way for some time, although it hit a new level of crisis with the election of Trump.

Whatever you think of the issue of immigration, declaring whole peoples “rapists” , “murderers” or “terrorists” serves only to undermine the public trust necessary for democracies to thrive.

“The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts,” write Allenby and Garreau.

Confronting a strange future (Scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind)

They are invading the mindspace of open democracies, which, reliant on open and genuine debate to function, are the most at risk to these distortions.

This is the new world democracies find themselves thrust into. And with so much Western future thinking assuming Western values in its designs for the world, this enormous vulnerability was never anticipated.

As Allenby writes:  “What we must do is understand what is being born. And create new narratives to capture this new reality.”

Now more than ever, the West needs to regain the ability to convey a big story about where it is going. It needs unity in a time when story is being used to unpick the fabric of unity.

Religion, and I mean religion that hews to its traditional place in the human imagination, can be a tool in democracy’s arsenal of narratives.

That’s because it offers context for connection with each other – while offering a code of conduct – essentially important in a time of rapid technological change.

If you roll back the clock to 50 years ago, 100 years ago, the collective story of Western democracy helped connect disparate elements of the West to each other.

The fight against totalitarianism begun in the 1930s extended into an embrace for democratic values well into the 1970s.

This story was told and retold in countless Hollywood movies. There was a constant examination, almost a preoccupation with the notion of civilization, in films that now looks impossibly dowdy and corny today, such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus.

Warlock by Oakley Hall tells the story of the quest for law on the frontier.

But also in stories of explorers, cowboys, sheriffs and the ever-present frontier.

A clear example of is the literary Western Warlock by Oakley Hall.

The ideology of the Cold War gave a spectrum on which people could orient themselves.

The East and West competed with visions of the future.

The arms race thrived, but so did a technological, civilizational race.

In the West, what couldn’t be told by the expansion of liberal rights and freedom on earth – seen in everything from civil rights to scientific progress – could be inferred or underpinned by religion and religious language.

In highly uncertain times, religion provided – and still provides – a storyline into the future. It was an admission that beneath the bedrock of Western values and open democracy are beliefs in the fundamental goodness of humanity.

This was understood during the last time democracy itself was under threat.

As psychologist Gordon Allport wrote after World War II: “The vision, the idea, of the democratic personality is the most exalted conception that mankind has ever devised.

“It is an ideal picture – stemming from Judaic and Christian religions chiefly and developed principally in the Western world – though all the great religions have consonant features.”

In the World War II Frank Capra-directed propaganda film ‘Prelude to War’ asks:  “How did our world become free?”

The film begins the answer by crediting: “Men of vision like Moses, Muhammad, Confucius, Christ.”

“All believed that in the sight of God all men were created equal and from that there developed a spirit among men and nations which is best expressed in our Declaration of Freedom: We hold these truths to be self evident that ‘all men are created equal.’”

An image of the koran from Frank Capra’s ‘Prelude to War’

Religions provided not the political direction but the basis for what it means to be human, upon which a coherent democratic worldview could be built.

Today Western democracy is under assault by waves of stories designed to splinter consensus. So democracy finds itself returned to a frontier situation, in which its very institutions are being overrun and tested.

Now more than ever, democratic culture must live in the hearts of citizens.

But because of technology and societal changes, it’s a frontier with no linking narrative to hold it all together. No coherent religious narrative as in the 1800s, and no coherent frontier myth, as in last century.

But religion, like democracy, is an open system, a code, a unifier. Religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, are told in story, and we are entering a period in which story, or “narrative”, as the Russians prefer, is the main battlefront between open democracies and authoritarian kleptocracies.

Mainstream religious tradition may have other value, as well.

For the future to work – people need a storyline into it, one that tells them that the future – for all its strangeness – has an understandable pattern and by extension a sort of meaning.

A recent psychological study showed that people “actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.”

A binding story: Treasure Chest a Catholic Guild comic book

Whether a cause of coincidence, it was clearly a more religious – and less secular – Western society that was also more capable of technological feats.

Humanity could take big strides in technology in the confidence that it retained a moral, religious framework to understand the future. Hence, astronauts reading from the Bible, as they orbited the moon.

Is it possible that some of the anxiety around technological progress today stems from the fear of future it will bring? Especially if the future, like the present, is stripped of a sense of community and shared sense of experience?

After all, the lack of coherent narrative, between left and right, conservative and liberal, can easily lead Western publics into a state of resignation.

With no shared story for interpret the world’s unfolding events, the vulnerability from outside increases. This narrative indirection invites storylines of Western liberal decline and failure.

We should consider how a measure of faith seemingly helped the people of Western society traverse the strangeness of this new world in the 20th century, but also in the 19th and 18th centuries.

Back then Westerners traversed borderlands and frontiers and carried with them theologies that helped them make sense of the unfamiliar. Religion helped them surmount the constant changing strangeness of such frontier life.

“Religion is arguably the most powerful mechanism that societies have found to bind people together in common purpose,” wrote one Oxford academic.

Having a belief system that orders the unseen, allows someone to push on even when their vision is blocked in real life. Having a code of conduct that informs your behavior in unfamiliar situations can help you better prepare for the unknown.

The Russians seek to defend a spiritual element in their propaganda

Like explorers and settlers of centuries past navigating unfamiliar land, whole Western public’s find themselves facing strange and unfamiliar digital realities in which the past gives them little guide.

Networked terror; a President with worrying ties to a hostile foreign power and zeal for dividing allies; the fusing of domestic politics with geopolitical propaganda. Many of these problems challenge our traditional understanding of politics.

Keeping society faithful to itself and to each other may be the new battle in a time when propaganda actively seeks to divide the same society.

Religion: too important to be left in hands of people like Salman Abedi

Information war these days relies on confusion, contradiction, paralysis –  all sapping a nation’s sense of purpose, it’s sense of mission and direction. In these times, a measure of mainstream religion can provide the sense of destiny missing in public discourse as well.

Mainstream religion in the West that fully embraces democracy can occupy a spot contested by terrorists and Russia, too.

Russia itself seeks to defend against “factors threatening spiritual life” while in fact creating propaganda that addresses spirituality in the context of history, politics, culture and society.

This is important in understanding the lure for Westerners of the Russian worldview as Putin positions himself as “defender of Christianity.”

Russia contrasts traditionalist Christianity with the modern world of the West.

Westerners would be wise to reconnect the notion of faith and reason in pursuit of modern progress. Democracy won’t survive into the future without a vision of itself to be carried forward.

It’s something for humanity to consider the next time it finds itself orbiting the moon.

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Could US-China space war be ‘inevitable’ even if the two nations aren’t ‘natural enemies’

Out of sight out of mind. That may explain how space competition between China and the US gets so little attention. With satellites orbiting hundreds of miles overhead and space “militarized but not weaponized” it’s easy to forget that space too, is an aspect of China’s rise. And because it involves high-technology, it’s probably an important one to watch.

Space war: an artist's rendering.
Space war: an artist’s rendering.

The Center of Strategic and International Studies’ James A. Lewis notes that “the only likely military contest in space is between the United States and China.” Space activities, he writes, are support China’s longer-term economic and strategic goals. “China’s intentions are to catch up with and surpass the West.”

Here is a piece I did on the subject for Fairfax that also takes in the growing space economy.

The subject of US-China space competition is, at this point, more for the elites than the masses. That’s because, until China puts a taikonaut on the moon, the American public likely won’t notice too much.

As Professor of Strategy at School of Advanced Air and Space Studies Everett Dolman told me: “China and US are not natural enemies” [nonetheless] both sides “fear the influence the other might have” and the geopolitical realities of the two “really collide first now in outer space.”

And the looming collision is on the radar of elites. A report on the subject was prepared this month  for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The report gives a detailed account of China’s evolution space strategy, viewing it as the ultimate “high ground” in a battle.

The People Liberation Army’s interest in space got rolling “after the 1991 Gulf War, which has been referred to as the first space war, and has only increased since,” the report notes. Today the thinking is that as air warfare has evolved, so will space warfare.

According to Chinese sources, space warfare is now at the equivalent stage of the state of air power in World War I in which intelligence gathering was the main mission of air forces. But just as with air power, space power will become so vital to military operations that militaries will seek to control space, resulting in a contest over its supremacy.

As a result, Chinese analysts conclude that space war is inevitable and that the Chinese military must not only develop space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, but also develop the means to protect those assets and to deny an enemy access to its space-based C4ISR assets.

In this regard, Chinese writers on space advocate the PLA to prepare to achieve space supremacy, defined as the ability to use space and to deny the use of space to its adversaries.

As grim as that sounds, a competition in space may not be nearly as lethal as one on the ground. In fact, if the parallel can be made to the cyberrealm, such a conflict may come down to which country has superior technology, rather than which one has bigger armies capable of more deadly destruction. The competition may be discrete, again, like it is in the cyberrealm. The question remains: when will the wider public notice?

The answer: maybe not until their own space-enable communications or entertainment are affected.

Silicon Valley, innovation stagnation and US-China competition

Suppose geo-economic competition is the name of the game between a country like the US and a country like China. Suppose such a rivalry, using economics to advance geopolitical goals, is more important than the ability to produce war-making hardware because – in superpower terms – it underpins the nations’ ability to shape the future. From there, defense, economy, and even history, to a degree, fall into place by changing the way a superpower is treated by the world.

Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel

So suppose such eventual competition between a country like the US and one like China is built on technological possibilities. Basic scientific breakthroughs, the kinds that invent new industries, will be the foundation of that success. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is among those in the US who see a crisis in the Western ability to generate the new kind of breakthrough technologies needed to for future robust US growth and the power it brings.

Thiel sees Silicon Valley as the place to find and hatch these new technologies, pointing to the talent the region today attracts increasingly at the expense of post-credit bust Wall Street and dysfunctional Washington. And yet I can’t help but think that looking for productivity increasing-breakthroughs in Silicon Valley is, frankly, looking for them in the wrong place. Wouldn’t the rise of Silicon Valley as the standard for technological progress coincide with the much-lamented post-1970s innovation-stagnation? So isn’t it possible Silicon Valley is, if not a dead-end of sorts, an unlikely source for groundbreaking future technological breakthroughs? I mean the sort that had increased quality of life and extending the reach of industry.

After all, historically the biggest scientific breakthroughs occur in an environment that is often divorced from a waiting, expectant market. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk, for example. The father of microbiology, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, was a Dutch draper. Discussing inventive periods in the past, anthropologist

What ever happened to the Concorde?

David Graeber notes: “Britain [during the Industrial Revolution was] notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.”  In other words, guys tinkering away at their own projects far from the dealing rooms of London, were a credible source of invention.

1961 illustration by Charles Schridde showing Motorola's
1961 illustration by Charles Schridde showing Motorola’s “House of the Future”

Big breakthroughs, in fact, are often happy accidents of scientists in a world of pure science and discovery.

US Wartime Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush acknowledged this way back in 1945, noting that “basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress. “ In the essay ‘Science The Endless Frontier‘ penned on the eve of the kind of multi-decade dramatic growth of the US economy and rise in living standards longed for by Thiel and Neal Stephenson and others, Bush wrote.

Industry is generally inhibited by preconceived goals, by its own clearly defined standards, and by the constant pressure of commercial necessity. Satisfactory progress in basic science seldom occurs under conditions prevailing in the normal industrial laboratory.

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

Bush even noted that “discoveries pertinent to medical progress have often come from remote and unexpected sources, and it is

Vannevar Bush
Vannevar Bush

certain that this will be true in the future.”

In other words, for real breakthroughs to occur, you can’t have investors and marketers breathing down the necks of the researchers and scientists in a place. Real breakthroughs tend to occur in free-range, not caged, conditions.

Yet today, the triumph of monetized, market-ready applied science most visible in a place like Silicon Valley reflects a commercial mindset rather than a more universal abiding push for scientific discovery. The broader experience of significant scientific breakthroughs is different, as well. True scientific progress leading to technological wonders goes hand-in-hand with the myth of our human destiny, of being the one species that can shape its own environment and ultimately, our own destiny. Rolling out tweaks and updates foretold in investor updates and SEC documents that try to quantify the ka-ching is not the same.

Thiel’s VC group, Founders Fund, has a manifesto ‘What Happened to the Future?’ that points to the slide in the scope of technology visible in just the last 20 years:

In the late 1990s, venture portfolios…still supported transformational technologies (e.g., search, mobility), but venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems (e.g., having messenger Kit-Kats to the office).

The statement continues

Not all technology is created equal: there is a difference between Pong and the Concorde or, less glibly, between Intel and Microprocessing represents real technological development, peddling pet food on-line, less so.

The presumption that technology has an immediate market value is another lesson learned after decades, yes, decades, of free-market ideology, embraced in the post-Cold War US. So there is an irony that libertarians, like Thiel, hold the primacy of private enterprise over government as an article of faith, particularly when government can have a crucial role in promoting scientific achievement which leads to productivity-gaining advances.

Apple: Not Different Enough
Apple: Not Different Enough

The final word on the matter is really for historians to debate. But we can say today that the current system is failing. We now have a situation where government has been robbed of basic tools it needs to assure a vibrant, competitive technology sector: Don’t believe me? Consider the case Office of Technology Assessment. Without it, now there is concern government agencies and committees in charge of regulation can be overwhelmed by new technology. It means more clunky and inefficient direction for industry. It’s already happening in areas like civilian drones. Uber is another case study.

Ironically, China, an authoritarian capitalist state, doesn’t have to cope with such ideological blinders on technology, science and results. There was a time when science in a communist country would be shoehorned to fit an economic outcome foretold by the political system. The People’s Republic of China in past times pushed its own population to starvation in the drive to develop its steel industry – as a sign of communist progress. Now, a nation like China can simply gather its best scientists into a room and fund them – market be damned – and look for results.

A recent photo from a Chinese moon mission, (Xinhua)
A recent photo from a Chinese moon mission, (Xinhua)

China’s space program is a clear example of this. While not breaking new ground (yet), it is winning the very real admiration of the world’s space scientists in the process. Moreover, China’s focused space program speaks volumes about China’s civilization, about its place in world affairs and about its destiny – all of which is closely watched by the international community. At its current pace, China will eventually begin to chalk up breakthroughs, and the story China can then tell will be, to a use a word from Silicon Valley, “transformative.” Another more universal description for China’s expected success might be “transcendent” – which is what big technology can do: transcend boundaries, borders, expectations.

Illustration by Charles Schridde
A future postponed (Illustration by Charles Schridde)

Meanwhile the US may still be debating what happened to the unbroken period of productivity-gaining inventions associated with American ingenuity. The sense of crisis in the US is palpable. But that, as Thiel noted in a 2011 New Yorker article, is not necessarily a bad thing. Says Thiel:

“It seems like we’ve not been thinking about the right issues for a long time…I actually think it is a big step just to ask the question ‘What does one need to do to make the US a better place?’ That’s where I’m weirdly hopeful, in spite of the fact that a lot of things aren’t going perfectly these days. There is a very cathartic crisis that’s gone on, and it’s not clear where it’s going to go. But at least everyone knows things are rotten. We’re in a much better place than when things were rotten and everyone thought things were great.”

And that kind of crisis thinking may be what’s needed to get back on the track to technological progress, the sort that reflects the possibilities of people, and that extends a sort of arc of meaning forward into the future.

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Graeber, Thiel, Stephenson: Utopia, Risk, and Space

This too is possible: painting by Robert McCall
This too is possible: painting by Robert McCall

To imagine a better future, you have to entertain some sort of utopian vision. This notion comes to mind reading about the debate between David Graeber and Peter Thiel. If there is one lesson from the past it’s that utopias are doomed to failure. But another lesson emerging today (if Thiel, Graeber, and Stephenson – and a bunch of others are right) seems to be that utopian visions are needed to point the way to great things.

One of my favorite lines from the New York Times’ take on the debate is on what entrepreneur Peter Thiel saw as the roots of the innovation stagnation:

[He saw] a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan “Act as if you are already free,” and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk.

The innovation stagnation has occurred in a time that has lacked utopian idealism, a time when the market capitalism triumphed, and quite clearly triumphed over the imagination of non-market dreamers. To get a sense of this change in mindset in past decades, read this description of Cold War utopias from an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Cold War design.

The late 1960s saw the last surge of utopian thinking in the 20th century. Visionaries on both sides of the Cold War envisaged new ways of living.

Radical design groups in the West, with names and images like rock bands, used architecture to challenge social conformity. In the Eastern Bloc, a new generation brought a cosmic sensibility to design.

Many of the most startling schemes reworked Cold War technologies. Inflatable buildings, geodesic domes and electronic media, once conscripted for military use, were now re-imagined as tools for nomadic life or instruments to liberate mind and body.

Do we still think like that? A good amount of the Graeber-Thiel debate has focused on what has gone wrong in recent years, allowing this malaise to take hold in the developed world. Whatever the cause, these days the West, under geo-economic threat from China and geopolitical threat from Russia and the jihadists,

NASA artist rendering of a Bernal Sphere
NASA artist rendering of a Bernal Sphere

is exiting a kind of strategic vacuum it has been in since the end of the Cold War. If the imaginations and livelihoods of people in countries like the US, France, Italy and the UK are to be vital in shaping the future, risk must be embraced again to accomplish Big Things.

We might be seeing it occur – just now. And the catalyst won’t just be the ideas of Graeber, et al but geopolitical pressure, which had a huge role in Cold War thinking. As an example, look at NASA’s recent decision to outsource its low earth orbit delivery systems: NASA has been unable to articulate a Big Goal for years. The agency has been beset by bureaucratic inaction and the whims of congress for decades. The cancellation of the Space Shuttle program forced the US to rely entirely on the Russians – yes, those Russians – for rocket engines to get US satellites to space, while US astronauts had rely on Russian vehicles to get to the International Space Station.

But Russia, in retaliation for sanctions placed on it over its annexation of Crimea and actions in Ukraine, have said it is pulling out of the ISS in the future and likely won’t sell rockets engines to the US, either.

Utopian visions in space
Utopian visions in space

In turn, NASA has selected Boeing and SpaceX to deliver astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. The dual contracts are “a throwback to an earlier era when the US used large space and defense contracts as a way to seed entire industries.” If all goes well and this business of rocket has been effectively put in private hands NASA can “focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.”

From NASA’s announcement:

The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected.

In other words, NASA, in awarding the contracts, is accepting risk because of the urgency imposed on it by Russia. This is significant, because arguably, what has been missing since the market-triumphed over the US, following the end of the Cold War, has been an acceptance of risk in exchange in pursuing a payoff for undertaking Big Things.

Here is how Stephenson describes the tendency to avoid risk in his famous essay:

In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report.

Stephenson’s argument about risk would be familiar to any investor. Greater risk is linked to greater future reward. But something about the triumph of corporations has driven that logic from executive decision-making for non-market ventures. (Yes, Wall Street showed a zeal for risk before the financial crisis) From Stephenson’s same essay:

Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable…Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off. A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.

And so today, we have NASA under pressure. And it’s responding. Scott Hubbard, ex-director of the NASA Ames Research Center says that with this decision, along with NASA decision to outsource other commercial transportation, the US has ‘”bet the farm’ on companies filling the gap left by the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

The decision to hand over the low earth orbit launches and transportation to Boeing and SpaceX marks an important step, he says.

“I believe this new approach is America’s “secret weapon” in what some have described as a space race with China. And, as far as I can tell, while the rest of the world is still stuck in a nearly government-only mode, NASA, with the support of the Obama administration, is letting loose the creativity of American know-how.”

“As with the early 20th century airmail routes that helped stimulate aviation, NASA’s commercial programs are now the anchor tenants in the government transfer of space services to the private sector. This in turn will enable a robust new business enterprise and allow NASA to focus on Mars — the ultimate target for exploration.”

The US government is once again opening frontiers, in other words. And as any historian would tell you, opening frontiers is fraught with risk. But the risk it entails also brings rewards. It was the geopolitical nudge from Russia that set off this change within NASA. But NASA’s acceptance of risk would not have been out of place during the historical Cold War. Embracing that risk will allow the organization to achieve escape velocity from its own bureaucratic gravity-field. And what incentive do Boeing and SpaceX have to get the job done, aside from continued funding? The invisible force called: ‘Your country is counting on you.’

But in order to see a time when commercial space services are robust and NASA is focused on its proper role, (‘Explore Deep Space’, as Hubbard says) one needs the utopian vision of the future,  a time in which people book trips to low earth orbit somewhat like they booked trips on the Concorde. Hard to imagine? Depends of where you sit. If you’re a business analyst trying to work out the costs and profits, it may seem daunting. If you’re thinking like you’re already free, bringing “wild fantasies to reality” is not so hard to imagine.

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