The French writer Georges Bataille spent the last years of his life on his great but little-known work The Accursed Share. In this book, Bataille argued that sacrifice or “expenditure” was the one absolute necessity of all human civilizations. Whatever energy cannot be used in growth, Bataille argued, “must be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.” In his view, war, human sacrifice among the Maya, or the Northwest Coast potlatch – were all forms of sacrifice essential to their respective societies. This idea sounds strange to us today, who have come to believe that, whatever its occasional caprices, capitalism – which demands that all profit be plowed back into maintenance and growth – is the best way for a society, and indeed for the world, to thrive. And yet, for most of our history, even the wealthiest and most successful civilizations have given sacrifice a sacred status. We still do so today – for war only – but our awareness of this is muddied by our mixed feelings about the terrors of modern warfare, along with the belief, cultivated by some leaders today, that a modern and “professional” army can wage war successfully without undue sacrifice — but of course, it can’t.
Though we mark the soldier’s sacrifice twice annually on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we’re unaccustomed to thinking about exploration as a form of sacrifice. And yet, in a profound sense, it is. We’re reminded of that sacrifice at times such as the loss of the space shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), but even when space exploration is accomplished, as it is more often today, with unmanned missions such as the NASA’s JUNO, there is a monetary sacrifice involved — in JUNO’s case, roughly 1.1 billion dollars, not counting the use of existing infrastructure (NASA’s command post, various radiotelescopes, and the sixty or so employees involved in the project). If we define sacrifice as ‘expenditure without hope of recompense,’ then we have to consider NASA’s budget (much shrunken over the past decades, but still running $20 billion a year), and indeed the entire US military budget, currently running near $700 billion. It may be a worthy expenditure, of course — but money that is put into military hardware returns no funds on the investment. As President Eisenhower once put it, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
But are there not some things worth the sacrifice? Certainly there are, and when the direction of that sacrifice is a peaceful one, there’s every reason to celebrate it. In our science-fictional universes, such as the Star Trek franchise, we imagine a world in which explorers will “boldly go where no one has gone before” — but in our present-day world, manned exploration — whether of outer space, the deep oceans, or the frozen zone — is often hampered by the unwillingness of governments to take the risk. But this could, and perhaps should, change. After all, it’s a tradition that, as President Reagan noted in his Challenger speech, stretches back to the days of explorers in their wooden ships:
On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete. The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
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