OPINION: Is Space Exploration Motivated By Nationalism?

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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Many have complained about the poor quality of education offered by elite universities for years. The latest evidence supporting that complaint recently appeared in an article called “Make Outer Space Great Again,” published in Brown University’s student-run Political Review.

The premise was that the space program, especially under President Trump, is motivated by something called “Christian nationalism” and American isolationism. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Apollo race to the moon was motivated by the need to demonstrate the superiority of the American system, which valued freedom and tolerance in contrast to the totalitarian Soviet regime. President Kennedy put the matter very well in his famous Rice University speech:

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Is the space program based in American isolationism? The premise was not entirely true even in the 1960s. After all, the Apollo 11 crew left a plaque that read, “We came in peace for all mankind.”

When President Reagan first proposed the space station project in the 1980s, a number of countries, including Canada, the European Union, and Japan became partners. President Clinton added Russia in the 1990s to what became the International Space Station.

More recently, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been busy reaching out to international space agencies, including those in Israel and the United Arab Emirates, in support of President Trump’s return to the moon program. The European Space Agency has proposed a “Moon Village” that would include a number of national and commercial partners.

Even the commercial partners for the lunar effort have an international flavor. Moon Express, for example, is run by a Canadian named Bob Richards., Commercial efforts to return to the moon are ongoing in India, Japan, and other countries.

The Harvard Business Review recently suggested that NASA has transformed from a singular government agency to the nexus of a network of international and commercial partners working toward common goals. The reality is hardly isolationist.

Of course, all of that does not suggest that people of faith — of any faith — cannot find inspiration and awe in the human exploration of space. Buzz Aldrin took communion on the lunar surface. The ceremony was conducted largely in secret because of a lawsuit, later dismissed, brought by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. O’Hair objected to the more well-known reading from the Book of Genesis by the crew of Apollo 8.

The reading, which took place on Christmas Eve as the Earth rose above the lunar surface, was a hopeful conclusion to the troubled year of 1968, appreciated by much of the world. Several astronauts, including Apollo moonwalker James Irwin, reported profound religious experiences while in space.

There are many motives for the exploration of space, both secular and sacred. The fact is not a bad thing and should be celebrated.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.