Saturday, March 21, 2015

A spectre is haunting me in Huntsville

Having recently had great fun watching a satellite launch in Cape Canaveral, we decided to spend this spring break visiting the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  Unlike Cape Canaveral, Huntsville is a plausible driving distance from Iowa City, at about 10 hours on the road, which made it a much better option than competing for airline seats at spring break fare levels.  Huntsville isn't quite so beautifully warm and spring-like as we'd thought it would be---apparently Northern Alabama has a lot more climatically in common with the Midwest than the Gulf Coast.

From our hotel, you could see the giant Saturn V moon rocket (mockup) looming up over the trees, and overall, the museum did not disappoint.  Harriet did space-walk dances beneath the shuttle, and delighted in the "blast-off ride" for little kids that shot them up in the air and then bounced them up and down and up and down on their way back to the ground.  She also loved the recordings of the Saturn V engine tests, which shook the whole area around where they played.
Harriet on her highly-favored "blast-off ride"
The Space and Rocket Center is also where Space Camp is, and so all the time that we were there, we were surrounded by floods of school-kids of various ages, going from place to place, learning the history of space and rocketry, doing experiments with balloon-and-cardboard landers or hand-launched rockets, learning about reorientation training by being spun around in giant hoops, and generally being highly enthusiastic at the top of their lungs.
Learning about space beneath the Saturn 1B
Reorientation training in a three-axis tumbling machine
I found, to my surprise, that my feelings were much more mixed than they had been in Cape Canaveral.  The thing is, the Space and Rocket Center is quite conscious of its history of being just as much about rockets as space.  This is where von Braun and the rest of the Nazi scientists from Operation Paperclip were brought to continue their work, and the collection also includes V-1 and V-2 terror weapons, quite a number of US military missile systems, and even an attack helicopter from the Vietnam era.  Walking through the museum entry, after you pass the case of model space shuttles and the "Mars Climbing Wall," you confront a bunch of Army future combat system prototypes and publicity models: a humvee with some sort of laser targeting pod, air and ground combat drones, air-to-air missiles, storm-trooper mannequins in badass green camouflage.
Learning in the shadow of  a V1 "Buzz-bomb"
Army surface-to-surface missile systems
I shouldn't be uncomfortable with this, I think.  I'm basically OK with the idea of military systems, used responsibly, and my research is mostly funded by the military.  So why did it bug me to have such a fusion of space and military, to find that overhead there seemed to be practically always a military helicopter passing by in some direction on an errand in the sky?  Clearly, the people of Huntsville did not have any such qualms.
One of the ubiquitous overhead military helicopters
So why was it this way for me?

I think that I want to feel that our venture into space is part of the best part of humanity, the reach after better dreams and visions.  It is in space where we first truly learned to look back on the Earth and to learn how fragile and unified it is, a gut-level grasp of the meaninglessness of national division.  Seeing the Earth from space helped to kick-start environmentalism, and to get us past the Cold War.  So I want space to be tied into that well-spring of good things, feelings I can rightfully feel warm and fuzzy about.

Military technology, on the other hand, while I feel it is reasonable and necessary, I also feel reflects the worst aspects of human nature.  We need these types of technology because we haven't figured out any way to have a society (or system of societies) in which there is not also conflict and strife.  So we need safety and defense, and defense can so easily become offense and oppression and war.  Even now, living in the safest period of human history, we are killing one another, and our high technology does nothing ultimately to change that fact, and indeed can enable us to become more callous and distanced from the effects of the choices we make as a society.

At Kennedy Space Center, the military side of space is not particularly visible, and neither is the nationalistic side.  It has all been brushed under in favor of the international and positive side, the aspirations that drive one major side of the drive to orbit and beyond.  The crowd is international, and the tone is of a united humanity.  But the satellite launch we watched while we were there was a US military communications satellite, and its existence actually directly impacts the scenarios that I am working with in my research now.

In Huntsville, you know that the two are intertwined, and you know that they are proud that it was the United States that went and did these things.  They aren't shy about von Braun's Nazi past.  They don't hide the fact that we performed animal testing before we ever sent humans up: in fact, there is a very uncomfortable-looking mannequin of a monkey restrained in a complex steel contraption, to show just how Able and Baker were sent up on their historic flight.  I also eat meat.

I know that I'm not comfortable with this intertwining of dreams of a better civilization with the realities of military use, but that doesn't mean it is or was the wrong thing to do.  In fact, I know that in fact it may be best to have a person like me who is uncomfortable involved, because I am not going to take the morality of the research that I am involved with for granted.  Or at least I hope that can remain the case.  I sometimes wish I didn't have to see the truth, but not to see it would be worse, I think.

Our visit to Huntsville haunts me, and I am comfortable with that.
Saturn V: the dream at dusk

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