The World Is That From Which There Is No Escape
Among many other things, Nick Land’s “Lure of the Void” series is a poetic, though only partially metaphoric exploration of Exit and the forces that keep it closed. In the series, space is figured as the unending frontier into which people could literally free themselves from terrestrial controls and concerns, that is, the concerns of the neopuritan Left (how can you bring Heaven to earth when you’ve already left for the heavens?). The Cathedral has thus de-emphasized the political theatrics of the Space Age, made space exploration a part of history, not a part of the future. Land writes:
Disillusionment is simply awakening from childish things, the druids tell us. This is a point Murphy is keen to endorse: “space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems.” Intriguingly, his initial step towards acceptance involves a rectification of false memory, through a (sane) analog of ‘Moon Hoax’ denial. Surveying his students on their understanding of recent space history (“since 1980 or so”), he discovered that no less than 52% thought humans had departed the earth as far as the moon in that time (385,000 km distant). Only 11% correctly understood that no manned expedition had escaped Low Earth Orbit (LEO) since the end of the Apollo program (600 km out). Recent human space activity, at least in the way it was imagined, had not taken place. It was predominantly a collective hallucination.
Murphy’s highly-developed style of numerate druidism represents the null hypothesis in the space settlement debate: perhaps we’re not out there because there’s no convincing reason to expect anything else. Extraterrestrial space isn’t a frontier, even a tough one, but rather an implacably hostile desolation that promises nothing except grief and waste. There’s some scientific data to be gleaned, and also (although Murphy doesn’t emphasize this) opportunities for political theatrics. Other than that, however, there’s nothing beyond LEO worth reaching for.
This week, NASA put what may be the first nail in the coffin of long-term manned space flight funded by non-private sources. The headline reads: Trip to Mars would likely exceed radiation limits for astronauts. But the limit is, naturally, a Cathedral-enforced one:
NASA limits astronauts’ increased cancer risk to 3 percent, which translates to a cumulative radiation dose of between about 800 millisieverts and 1,200 millisieverts, depending on a person’s age, gender and other factors.
“Even for the shortest of (Mars) missions, we are perilously close to the radiation career and health limits that we’ve established for our astronauts,” NASA’s chief medical officer Richard Williams told a National Academy of Sciences’ medical committee on Thursday.
I don’t doubt for a second that most astronauts would gladly sign on for long-term space flights even if such adventures increased risk of cancer in later life. Nor do I doubt that these astronauts will gladly work for yet-to-be-founded private companies that, like governments of yesteryear, refuse to give up advancing knowledge and profit simply because the pursuit might be a little dangerous. But this latest NASA announcement proves the general validity of Land’s thesis: the Cathedral, quite literally, does not want the humans to escape.
The history of exploration of new lands, science and technologies has always entailed risk to the health and lives of the explorers. Similarly, the history of settlement of new territory is a bloody one, with great risk to the settlers. Had they not taken those risks, we might still be in the trees in Africa, and unable to write books like this on computers. Yet, when it comes to exploring and developing the high frontier of space, the harshest frontier ever, the highest value is apparently not the accomplishment of those goals, but of minimizing, if not eliminating, the possibility of injury or death of the humans carrying them out.