This week saw the successful launch of the penultimate mission in the United States Space Shuttle program. This is occasion to be proud of what we’ve achieved, maybe to be a bit sad that a triumphant tale is drawing to a close, and definitely to contemplate what’s next. I’ve been reading all sorts of articles from space-privitization apologists breathlessly talking about how the lack of a Space Shuttle is going to give private industry this huge incentive-boost to magically do all the work that NASA ever did, better, safer, and cheaper. I try hard to believe in that John & Paul doctrine of “it’s getting better all the time” but this is one area where skepticism takes over and I’m not so sure.
One of the articles that bothered me the most was a top-ranked story on Digg, contrasting the tale of the Apollo program with, of all things, two low-paid garbage men who got killed because of occupational hazards. I read the article trying to be as open-minded as possible, but when I reached the conclusion I felt a wave of outrage: “I’d rather see us prevent poor people from falling into garbage compactors than look at another pretty picture from the Moon.”
Okay, I’m going to tackle this on a few different levels.
One: why two garbagemen? Why not pick a trucker who got killed in a wreck, or the loss of innocent life in a plane crash due to poor saftey? Maybe the object was to purposefully select an undignified way of dying? It seems like an completely randomized circumstance of unfortunate death. An important thing to point out here is that right now, literally as you are reading this sentence, somewhere, someone is dying an undeserved and tragically preventable death. This. Very. Moment. Going on a quest to rid the world of this situation is equally ludicrous as trying to rid the world of heartbreak. It is intrinsically impossible to save all humankind from all humankind’s own foolishness, hubris, or simple bad luck. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to build an international culture that places the highest value on the preciousness of human life, and protects it accordingly… we SHOULD! But I AM saying that the death of two garbagemen is an utterly irrelevant and misguided excuse to give up pursuing the highest scientific aspirations of our best and brightest!
Eisenhower famously said, “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. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” The thrust of these words is that civilization has finite resources for to allocating. Bearing this in mind, space exploration should not be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of humane working conditions, and health care. But I do believe that space exploration should be ruthlessly pursued at the expense of so-called ‘defense’ budgets, tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations, and yes, maybe even a few other hard-to-pick good causes which would be hard to cut. Which brings us to why space exploration is truly that important…
Two: The essence of what he’s saying boils down to the classic “we need to solve our problems here first” arguement. The webcomic XKCD recently had a bitingly sharp ancedote hidden in a mouseover caption which would be relevant to reprint in large, obvious text here:
This is the inevitable and indeed the ONLY end result of the “solve-our-problems-here” line of thinking. In all of human history there has never been an era in which all cultures coexisted peacefully with abundant food and technological resources. Nor will such an era will ever arise in the future. In our timeline we have been fortunate thus far to have never encountered catastrophe on a global scale. In the future, we will. Whether it be a barrage of asteroids, avian flu, the collapse of our food supply, a small-scale exchange of ICBMs, or the plain old slow whittling of minor conflicts as our resource supplies dwindle fromoverpopulation; one way or another, we Earth dwellers will face our reckoning. Best case scenario: 500 million years from now the oceans evaporate as the sun swells to a red giant. That’s the best-case lifespan of Earth. Contrast that number with the 4.5 billion years of evolution it took for the current civilization to arise.
To make the leap to becoming a spacefaring race, we will need more ingenuity and tenacity than currently imaginable. We must develop interplanetary mining, terraforming, interstellar space travel, interspecies communication techology, inter-intelligence diplomacy expertise, inter-intelligence cultural contexts–possibly intergalactic space travel technology–before the secrets of the universe will reveal themselves. We will need to accomplish these feats elegantly and routinely, with an untold number of repetitions. Thinking small, thinking local is not how this will ever occur.
So let’s take a hard, honest, and clairvoyant look forward and see two possible futures for our descendants: one where Earth becomes the single-planet gravesite of humanity; OR one where we learn to master the aforementioned challenges and survive the apocalypse of our home planet. We can either start preparing ourselves to live on, or be complacent and leave our die offspring to die among intractibly difficult problems. Those are the choices, there is not a third option. Every decade we waste, slashing and debating the merits of the NASA budget, or trying to figure out how to make space tourism profitable is another decade squandered, in which we could have gained a better understanding of spaceflight’s effect on the human body, the psychological and supply difficulties of remote colonization, or the drastically different ecologies of foreign planets, even just here within our own solar system. We deulde ourselves to think that stalling on these scientific advances is inconsequential.
Maybe we will be lucky, and have abundant time to tackle these monumental feats. There is a distinctly real chance that maybe we won’t. All the eggs are in one basket. Is it worth squandering the legacy, the blood, and the sweat of every human who ever lived, to bet on hesitance, procrastination, laziness? Is it worth gambling our entire collective history?
Three: okay, let’s take a reckless step and just disregard the fact that our entire planet has an expiration date. Assuming humankind could miraculously have infinite tomorrows, there’s still ample reason to go into space: because it reveals the best within us.
What’s the greatest feat any human has ever done? Take a gallup poll: walking on the moon. What’s the most published image of all time? Answer: the “blue marble” image, which was the first full image of Earth taken from space. There’s greatness in them there skies. Untold treasures for explorers, answers for the curious, thills for the daredevils. It’s all out there, literally.
The quest to understand space is also the quest to understand the origins of life–as well the scarcity, diversity, preciousness, and potential fruits of life. These are the BIG questions. Should we stop asking these? Should we just give up and admit that because the answers are unknowable within the span of thousands of lifetimes that they are not meant for our kind to comprehend? Should we abandon the quest for intelligence?
Even if our species just never quite amasses the smarts needed to travel to the nearest star, even if we remain stuck here in our stellar oasis, surrounded by bigger, better civilzations who laugh at the smallness of our attempts, there is an inherent value in TRYING. Even if our brains are too limited to grok the interconnectedness of the cosmos, or the purpose of our collective Endeavour within it, there is inherent value in attempting.
The following video made the rounds a little while ago with the discussion of SETI; it holds relevance here too. If you haven’t watched it, it’s worth your time.