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PLAYING IN SPACE: Eric Hoffer’s book The Ordeal of Change contains an interesting essay entitled “The Playful Mood”, in which the author explains that much of the innovation which has gotten our species to where it is very likely had its origin in play, rather than the directed application of accumulated knowledge to solve immediate and pressing problems.

The urgent search for the vitally necessary is likely to stop once we have found something that is more or less adequate, but the search for the superfluous has no end. Hence the fact that man’s most unflagging and spectacular efforts were made not in search of necessities but of superfluities. It is worth remembering that the discovery of America was a by-product of the search for ginger, cloves, pepper, and cinnamon. The utilitarian device, even when it is an essential ingredient of our daily life, is most likely to have its ancestry in the nonutilitarian.

It’s hardly a startling argument — after all, a trip through the timekeeping exhibit at the American History Museum in D.C. (if that exhibit is still there) reveals numerous examples of the clockwork “automata” to which Hoffer refers in the essay, elaborate mechanical toys which adorned the tables of the aristocracy before anyone had worked out the more practical application of the relevant technology to things like, well, clocks, for example. Such things clearly illustrate to even the cursory observer the point that the new technology was used for frivolous (“fun”) purposes before it found its world-changing “practical” applications. With regards to space, any space enthusiast can tell you about the uses to which solid rocket motors were first put, adding further evidence in support of the argument.

What is particularly interesting here is the application of this idea to an activity in the news: space tourism. Despite justifications for the flights of Glenn, Tito, and (currently) Shuttleworth on the grounds of the scientific experiments they will be performing (or subjected to) while in space, every one of us knows that what it’s really about is fun. It may be very expensive and somewhat dangerous, but the fact remains that the individuals involved are using the highest expression of modern technology more for “superfluous” pleasure than for any of the purported “utilitarian” benefits.

If this is so, the real utilitarian benefits may come in the form of unexpected discoveries and side-effects and technological development pursued to facilitate increasing nonutilitarian use of space (e.g.: space tourism).

Which is precisely what the critics of space tourism fail to understand. And to explain such critics, who in our case explain their opposition in terms of a preference for “serious science” and a belief that “space travel is for trained professionals”, Hoffer continues:

One suspects that much of the praise of seriousness comes from people who have a vital need for a facade of weight and dignity.

Sound familiar?

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