On Earth and Above - A Republic, If You Can Keep It

"What have we got - a Republic or a Monarchy?"

"A Republic, if you can keep it" 

Benjamin Franklin's witty response following the Constitutional Convention of 1787


Personal posts are uncommon on Astronomical Returns, but this is a blog after all, so once in a while I find it necessary and worthwhile to share my observations of the world around me. In the midst of an election, following the most tumultuous year I and 325 million of my fellow Americans have experienced in a generation, this is one of those instances. But worry not, this post is anything but an exaltation of one political candidate or an excoriation of another; I have absolutely no desire to turn the space blog I've nurtured for the past year and a half into a vehicle of partisan politics. No, these are just my simple reflections on what it means to be an American, written by an average guy, a space nerd, and a citizen of humanity 

Fate bestows upon everyone their fair share of serendipity and misfortune, lucky breaks and star-crossed calamities. In my life, I've been granted the fulfillment of my childhood dream, contributing to the space program through my work on the SpaceX Finance team. Having been here for 10 months now, I've had people ask me what it took to achieve this goal. Was it all the financial modeling I learned on Wall Street? Or the children's space books I've been reading since I was 3?


Out of all my personal attributes, the chance to work at SpaceX hinged entirely on one trait - the happenstance fact that the cover of my passport says "United States of America" (for national security reasons, SpaceX is only allowed to hire American citizens). You see, my space obsession was innate at birth; no matter where on the Blue Marble I was born, I would have spent my entire life looking up at the stars and wondering at our place among them. But it is only because I was born American that I've had the opportunity to pursue my passion, a birthright I neither deserved nor earned. And as the son of immigrants who has reaped the full harvest of the American Dream, I feel a sense of responsibility to uphold the highest ideals of the country that has allowed me to make my mark upon the heavens

Whether we like it or not, the phrase "Make America Great Again" is now embedded in our political discourse, and it will remain in our collective consciousness for the foreseeable future. But rather than write it off as the divisive slogan of a demagogic president, perhaps we could repurpose it as a long-overdue reckoning of how we define what it means to be citizens of a great nation. Great nations invest in their space programs, declining nations abandon them. This much is true, and has been since the advent of the Space Age. Great nations have booming economies and powerful militaries, traditional definitions of superpower status that every American has benefitted from in the decades after WWII. But perhaps our conception of national glory is too narrow-minded. Beyond just counting the number of flags left on the moon (USA: 6 | rest of the world: 0  HAHA!), what if the greatness of our country were judged by our tolerance of those who are different from us, our willingness to help out those less fortunate, our adherence to rational thought and civil discourse, and our capacity for self-sacrifice in defense of the greater good? Would America still lead the world?

Among my friends and family, sometimes I like to pass myself off as the cynic, satirizing the intransigence of our politicians and the incompetence of our fellow citizens. But really underneath that grouchy exterior, I am an idealist at heart. Now, the thing about idealists is that they tend to latch onto aspirations written off by others as pipe dreams. For me, those "pipe dreams" are a city on the Moon, a flag on Mars, and believe it or not, bipartisan compromise here on Earth - a future for our country that I earnestly hope will come to pass. And while my occupation already channels my efforts into achieving the first two, it falls on me personally to not to add to the polarized vitriol of our political discourse, a task I admittedly find quite difficult. But if we truly believe in American representative government, and that our elected politicians reflect the will of the people, then we cannot bemoan the obstinance and cruelty of our leaders without first examining our own individual failures. We have no one but ourselves to blame; it is our responsibility to be citizens worthy of a great nation

The vast majority of the time, democracy demands so little of us. Pay your taxes, show up to vote once in a while, don't go around murdering people or otherwise wantonly breaking the law. As a recent article by The Atlantic put it, "We treat democracy like clean water, something that just comes out of the tap, something we exert no effort to procure." So we forget that just a few generations ago, our compatriots stormed the beaches of Normandy, marched for civil rights under threat of vicious assault, and braved the vast abyss of space to plant the American flag on the moon. Every succeeding generation inherits the burden and the hope of America; in 2020, all that is required of us is to fill out a ballot, wear a mask, and try our best to respect people we disagree with. I don't think that's too much to ask

Someone once asked me, "Hans, you're Chinese American - if China offered you citizenship and a seat on the next Shenzhou spacecraft, would you take it?" To which I responded not just no, but HELL NO. In my own words, "I'm not going to space bearing a communist banner. I either go up with the Stars and Stripes proudly emblazoned on my shoulder, or I don't go up at all" 

This country has given much to me, and though we are very far from perfect, the promise of America is the promise to always strive for the more perfect Union our founders envisioned. When future historians 1,000 years from now contemplate the nation that put the first footprints on the moon, I hope they will conclude we made good on that promise

"For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace"
- President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

1 comment

  1. Another well written and eloquent article brother mine. One of my favorite posts right along with your "Ode to the Cosmos." Hopefully moving forward people will put aside their partisan differences and just do what is decent.