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NASA’s Moral Failures: A Clue to Culture?

August 20, 2007
S. Michael Craven
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You may not have noticed but there has been a rash of scandals, moral failures, human errors and the like coming out of NASA in the past year.

This past February, for the first time in its history, NASA publicly fired an astronaut, Lisa Nowak. Nowak was fired after she was arrested for attempted kidnapping in Florida. This was also the first time in NASA’s history that an astronaut has been charged with a felony. You may recall the bizarre events involving two other astronauts in an apparent love triangle in which Nowak, motivated by jealousy, drove from Houston to Orlando wearing an adult diaper, in order to avoid stops, to confront and kidnap her rival.

In April, NASA employee William Phillips, smuggled a pistol into the space center, shot his boss and barricaded himself with a hostage before shooting himself.

Then last month, a space program worker sabotaged a computer that was scheduled to fly on the shuttle Endeavour this month. Also in July, reports emerged that “drunken” NASA astronauts were allowed to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and cleared to fly on the space shuttle.

Most recently, a Canadian researcher uncovered a critical error in NASA’s climate calculations. Previously, NASA had reported that 1998 was the “hottest year on record.” However, NASA officials this past week conceded their math error and the revised data now shows that the Dust Bowl year of 1934 was, in fact, the hottest ever in the U.S., challenging the argument that national temperatures are reaching new highs.

Do these failures within our most ambitious human project ever conceived reveal something about our culture? I think they do.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in the National Review Online posits that these “failures,” in particular “tipsy” astronauts, might be attributable to a sort of boredom that stems from a loss of grand exploratory vision. Krauthammer points out that, “space makes the news today only as mini-scandal or farce. It all started out as a great romance in the 1960s, yet by the 1970s — indeed, the morning after the 1969 moon landing — romance had turned to boredom.” Krauthammer offers this conclusion:

When the Apollo 13 astronauts gave their live broadcast from space, not a single network carried it. No interest. Until, that is, the explosion that nearly killed them, at which point the world tuned in with rapt and morbid attention. Well, we are now in stage three of our space odyssey: mockery and amusement. It’s hard to entirely blame this state of affairs on a fickle public. Blame also belongs to the idiot politicians who decided 30 years ago to abandon the moon and send us on a pointless and endless journey into low Earth orbit.

Is it possible that we as a society are losing our ambitious energy that has heretofore driven us as a nation to explore the great unknown and that this is the source of NASA’s recent failures and the public’s apathy for space exploration?

There is an interesting correlation between a society’s moral order and their exploratory urges. J.D. Unwin, the British anthropologist whose work I have referred to before offers some interesting historical insight. (Unwin’s monumental publication, Sex and Culture, 1934, is 674 pages, so there is much to be gleaned from his research spanning 5000 years of human history and more than 80 civilizations.) Unwin points out that “human societies have arrived into six different states of [social] energy; three lesser, three greater.” These different states of social energy, according to Unwin produce various cultural conditions. The lesser three yield primitive societies; the greater three yield technologically and culturally advanced societies.

Among those advanced societies, the three states of social energy are “rationalistic, expansive and productive” with expansive and productive energy being the greater among the three.

Unwin demonstrated that these varying levels of social energy are the direct result of the given society’s morality—specifically, sexual morality or “the nature of the sexual opportunity enjoyed by the people.” Where there is increased sexual opportunity or what he termed “modified monogamy,” there follows a decrease in social energy. These societies either remain in or return to a primitive, non-expansive, non-productive state. Conversely, where there is a decrease in sexual opportunity or absolute monogamy is the socially reinforced expectation, there follows an increase in social energy, in particular expansive or productive energy.

Unwin defined “expansive energy” as follows:

The society becomes dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on it by its habitat; ardent men explore new lands, which hitherto have remained unvisited because the necessary urge to explore has been absent; thoughtful men begin to look beyond the horizon that their fathers regarded as the limits of the world. Commerce is extended; foreign settlements are established; colonies founded.”

According to Unwin, “The first event that follows the reduction of sexual opportunity to a minimum is the display of expansive energy,” adding “There is no recorded case of a society reducing its sexual opportunity to a minimum without displaying expansive energy…nor has expansive energy ever been displayed by a generation that inherited a modified monogamy.”

In the wake of the sexual revolution, American culture has very clearly abandoned its commitment to absolute monogamy in favor of a radically modified monogamy in which sexual promiscuity is actually encouraged. The cultural height reached by any society, according to Unwin, has varied according to the amount of time during which it has preserved its sexual regulations without modification. We, unfortunately, are on the downward slope, and without a return to the biblical view of sex, and marriage as its fortifying institution, we will lack the necessary social energy to explore the recesses of own refrigerators much less the far reaches outer space.

© 2007 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Jim Lumppio  

August 20, 2007 9:07 AM

I was just wondering about the part from sexual energy causing a nation or people to become less productive, why would the Arab nations be so seemingly backward in the technological advancements even though they support a very strict moral code?

Response from : John H. Armstrong  

August 20, 2007 10:32 AM

The research and conclusions from Unwin are so powerful. Who can question that we need a true spiritual awakening and deeply biblical reformation when you see the evidence you have presented to us so well Michael? Thank you and God bless you for helping so many of us who read your work with deep appreciation.

Response from : Melody Spray  

August 20, 2007 1:29 PM

In response to the person above who wondered about Arab nations with their "strict moral code," could it be that they do not actually follow their own professed ethics? From what I know of them, they do not. Respect for women in any form is not known. As a culture, the males are sex-crazed, no matter their strange insistence on veiling women in public.

I thought the article was well-founded and revelational.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

August 20, 2007 1:30 PM

Dear Mr. Lumppio,

This answer to your question is that Muslim cultures still practice polygamy, which according to Unwin's research-- produces a similar effect to that of a modified monogamy. Good question!

Response from : Ross L. Gillum  

August 20, 2007 6:32 PM

This was magnificent. You slayed the ridiculous dragon of Global Warming at the same time that you reminded us that sex is not evil, it is just love shared with only one other person. To me, it also makes a wonderful point of why the more fundamental Islamic societies are so far behind us in education and cultural ideaology. This is a great article that I can share with everyone.

Best regards,

Ross L. Gillum
Snohomish, WA.

Response from : Brian Van Dine  

August 21, 2007 9:35 PM

I can accept the charge that NASA is in a state of moral decline. American society in general is in a state of moral decline, NASA being a sub-system of American society would be expected to follow suit. The assertion, however, that there is a correlation between monogamous nations and productivity seems somewhat far-fetched and not particularly good social science. Muslim countries, for example, have strict rules about sexual conduct, yet, I can't think of a single Muslim dominated country that is especially productive or wealthy.


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