Destination moon or Moscow

People need food, but many people also need to dream. Without a dream, a place to go to that is not here, some people cannot survive. For such people, it used to be the call of the open sea:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse and nothing in particular to interest me on shore I thought I would sail.

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The sea is still here, but it is no longer the unfamiliar, unknown expanse that it used to be. The greater of the adventurers among us still traverse the oceans in ways that make it daunting, but for the more casual Ishmaels, it doesn't retain the same bite.

This urge to venture out into the unknown is ultimately an imperialistic urge. It is the urge to grow, it is the urge to becomes bigger, more powerful, more experienced, than one is. It is a propelling force, a drive, in men, nations and companies.

A nation that stops growing will wither. History has seen it many times, with the prominent examples like India, or China, which reached points where they became satiated, stopped moving outwards, and ended up being plundered.

This urge of nations to not stay still, and keep growing, manifests itself in trade and other forms of econo-cultural conquests, and in war otherwise. But it cannot be avoided, this urge, for not acting on it is just an invitation for the sharks.

Not everyone is like this, of course, but some people, and many collectives of people (companies, nations) are.

Luckily for us, there is a never-ending expanse of space still waiting for us to venture out. Space provide a way for nations to vent this imperialistic tendency, and continue growing, without needing to grow at the expense of the other. It is a perfect non-zero sum game. It is the sea of our times.

Space is not the only way of course. Sports is another, more common way. But sports have a limit of how much of this urge they can consume. When nations get very big and powerful, it needs more than sports to keep them from stepping on each others toes, without asking of them to stagnate in their own pools. What's better, getting out there would likely need us to help each other, to cooperate.

I'm not making a new claim, people have recognized this earlier too. In the cold war era, where the duopoly dynamics inevitably turned into a match with the Soviet Union, the mindset of United States was often expressed as "Destination Moon or Moscow". And were it not for the moon, it would've been Moscow indeed, to the detriment of us all.

No, I'm not making a new claim. I'm just expressing a sigh of relief, and the hope and yearning of uncharted shores, that we have the vastness of space to sketch out, and are starting to get to a point where we have the boats to.

Dreams are not which we see when we sleep. Dreams are what which don't let us sleep.

– Abdul Kalam, Chief scientist ISRO & later President of India

Manav Rathi
Sep 2023