A Space Aged Hiatus

Like a lot of scientifically inclined technophillic folks, the space shuttle’s last flight makes me feel a little melancholy.  I believe there are very good reasons to send people off world.  If we are both lucky and conscientious then in the fullness of time humanity — or whatever inherits our history — will mediate the migration of the terrestrial biosphere beyond this pale blue homeworld.  In doing so, we will ensure, or at least increase the probability, of life’s persistence into deep cosmological time and space.  This goal, or something akin to it, is what has motivated a lot of people (myself included) to work on space exploration over the last half century.  It is an enduring motivation, but to the public at large and to policymakers, I think it comes off as esoteric, cultish, or at least eccentric.

But the motivations of we who have chosen to work on space exploration need not be shared by those who fund us, and I think for the most part, they never have been.  We were allowed to venture to the other side of the sky in the second half of the 20th century for monkey-minded reasons.  It was a long, drawn out display of dominance.  Technological, paramilitary chest-beating.  That’s not why a lot of us wanted to work on it, but it is why a lot of money and political support came our way.  It wasn’t for love of knowledge, or the long term survival of our species and the other earthlings.

Nixon cancelled the last Apollo flight, even though virtually all of the costs associated with it had already been booked, because it was clear that we’d won the space race, and neither the government nor the public at large cared about the scientific returns.  The space shuttle was born out of competition with the Soviets in the 1970s.  NASA has been unable to commit to any flagship robotic mission since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn is a product of the late 1980s, as is the International Space Station.  Vastly more money is spent on launch vehicles and flight hardware than on data analysis and post-launch operations.  The aerospace industry is a much more powerful lobbying force than the scientific community.

We may have worked on space exploration for altruistic, long-term reasons, but that was never what our handlers had in mind.  There are good reasons to go to space, but that’s not why we went there.  The best goals in space are very, very hard to achieve.  Terraforming Mars is much, much harder than arranging a week long vacation for three on the moon.  So while I feel sad that we’re completing our retreat from the heavens, I also feel like this is a more honest arrangement.  Just because society is hypothetically capable of doing something doesn’t mean it’s ready to do it.  We aren’t yet ready to spread off world.  The last half century has been a strange historical detour, in which we did a lot the right things for the wrong reasons, and now those motivations and their ensuing bureaucratic inertia have finally run their course.  We can easily justify $20 billion year to air condition tents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a cool trillion to bail out a misanthropic finance industry, but SETI is in hibernation indefinitely.  We obviously just don’t care about this stuff.

The creation of an interplanetary or interstellar civilization will certainly involve surmounting technological hurdles and epic feats of engineering, but first we have to want to do it — en masse — for the right reasons.  For reasons which can motivate us across generations.  We have to build a social movement, or we have to find some way to do it that doesn’t require the support of society at large.  An alternative to the Werner von Braun visions of space exploration.

Until then, we will be grounded.

6 thoughts on “A Space Aged Hiatus”

  1. First, thanks for the link; it’s always nice to know that I’m not writing only to myself. 🙂

    As for your own thoughts, I think the problem lies in your final paragraph: “The creation of an interplanetary or interstellar civilization” is not a phrase that most people are going to be able to get behind. You, me, and others that have had careers or other serious exposure to science can take that phrase seriously; it’s the logical goal for the survival of our species as soon as you understand that the lifetime of the solar system is finite. The trouble is, I think to many people that sounds like science fiction, not an actual goal that we can, and should, be striving toward. And even if they can get behind the idea in theory, it’s so far removed from moment-to-moment problems of putting gas in the car, or payng the bills, or the next quarterly earnings statement, or picking up the kids from soccer practice. Space exploration (and science in general) is something that rarely intersects with most people’s lives.

    As a much younger man, I had a youthful infatuation with The Millennial Project. In fact, in high school I skipped out of class early to attend lecture about long-term space exploration and habitation given at the lab where my parents worked. (My parents were, and continue to be, pretty awesome.) During the Q/A at the end of the talk, after all the engineers and astronomers had asked technical questions, I boldly raised my hand and asked the speaker about how he thought anyone could get this ball rolling; how, I asked, would you convince people to sink money into a fantastically bold space exploration project when NASA was always fighting for its budget, when the NSF always seemed to be underfunded, and when it was easier to fund things that actually had a hope of making a profit in the short term? I’ll never forget his answer: “Well,” he said, “we have to find a way to make them so damn rich they won’t care what we’re doing!”

    I think we may be witnessing some of that now. NASA seems to be in a slow downward spiral, and has been for some time. But perhaps Scaled Composites or Armadillo Aerospace or some other company can begin to fill that void, with commercial investment replacing government funding. My dad likes to talk about the fringe benefits of basic research, his argument for why we should fund science for people who don’t care about pulsars or subatomic composition. MRIs run on software developed for radio astronomy, for example; cell phones can be as small as they are now thanks to receiver technology developed for listening to the most distant objects in the universe.

    I don’t know that society can change enough to make space flight a long-term goal as you suggest, at least not in the short term. I wish it would. But perhaps we can make enough people rich enough that they won’t care what we’re doing.

  2. I can’t imagine terraforming and colonizing Mars for tang and velcro, or even MRIs. If we ever do it, we’ll do it because it’s a transcendental endeavor. Societies have been able to motivate themselves for inter-generational projects in the past. It’s just not the kind of society we’ve got right now. We need a timescale shift on a lot of other fronts too. Climate especially.

    I’m not sure I totally understand the “make them so rich they don’t care” proposition though. As in, if it costs a fixed $10 trillion to get a Martian terraforming effort up and running, then we need to have an economy in which $10 trillion is a negligible amount of money? Or alternatively, we need to make the terraforming effort so cheap that it can be financed by a small number of dedicated people. I think these are really the same argument. A reduction in the relative expense of the project. Barring a planetary scale sense of Manifest Destiny (which sounds hard to orchestrate) the only way these strange and difficult things will get done is if a small number of people acting in concert can do them… regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

    Interestingly, given the wealth distribution we’ve got in the US today… you only have to convince a few hundred of the very richest (vs. a few hundred million Joe Sixpacks) to go along if you wanted a cool trillion of your own to work with.

    1. Good points; the “make them so rich” comment wasn’t realy geared toward projects on the scale of planetary coloniztion; more long-term and expansive orbital stuff.

      You’re right that Tang, velcro, MRIs, etc. won’t motivate what we’re talking about; the root cause is the lack of long-term vision or commitment. In the past, we’ve built cathedrials and pyramids and the Great Wall, projects that took generations to complete. That’s not happening now, and I don’t know how one would even go about trying to make it, save for a shift away from democracy. I suppose better education is a start, but there also seems to be a decidedly anti-intellectual bent in the United States of late, making that difficult.

      As for the wealth disparity, a good point; I’m reminded of what’s-his-name from Contact. 🙂 Folks like Burt Rutan and John Carmack are using their fortunes to play with commercial space development . . . perhaps that’s a start?

  3. Boy, I have become so scientifically-minded technophobic in my old(er) age! With the Challenger disaster I decided that I _had_ to be an astronaut when I grew up. Now I’m not sure anything justifies the space program. I’m not sure, I still like the idea of satisfying curiosity and trying to solve the mysteries of the universe, just for heck of it, if it doesn’t harm anything else (I do have a degree in astronomy from caltech after all). But the whole ‘continue the species into the long term, colonize the solar system/universe’ seems very wrong to me. Is it my lack of a y chromosome? I think we should just stay home, clean up our planet, and die peacefully in our planet’s old age (in whatever form our species is in then, if it survives to that point even). I have no particular desire for personal or species level immortality. We all go someday, and the mature journey before death seems to be one of the mind, not of the external space. Limits to life, while sometimes at odds with deep human desires, seem to help make life more fulfilling and livable. Not that I don’t have my own hypocrisies and conflicting desires in the whole exploration/settling arena. This is just my gut level reaction. And I wonder about the causes behind such variations in thought of reasonably similar humans from similar cultures.

    1. I know women who feel strongly about the persistence of life, so I don’t think it’s your XX-ness. It’s not going to be an everyone project. Unanimous consent among billions is not to be found. It’ll have to be something that some subset of us can pull off. The smaller the required subset, the more likely it is to happen. I wonder if there will be people who feel so strongly that it shouldn’t happen that they’re willing to fight it actively? That just ends up sounding like some kind of cult of the apocalypse to me. Dunno. I guess if I felt like persistence was off the table, I’d just become a hedonist. Burn it all. Who gives a fuck. It’s all going to go up in smoke anyway. It’s the possibility of something else that keeps me interested in the future.

      I’ve always felt like this discussion (which I’ve certainly had before) ends up sounding a lot like a debate about the doctrine of original sin. My experience has been that most folks who are in favor of persistence tend to be on the techno-utopian end of the spectrum, and feel like humanity is awesome. While most who are actively opposed (not just indifferent) have a lot of feelings of guilt about the impact humanity has had on the terrestrial biosphere. They seem to feel like we kind of “deserve” to get wiped out, or like the Earth would be better off without us, even if that means eventually being obliterated by the Sun.

      The techno-utopians usually seem too optimistic to me. Unwilling to accept that we have degraded the Earth in non-trivial ways, and are by all appearances intent on doing yet graver harm. The dark green position seems too willing to accept responsibility for the sins of others. Of prior generations. Of the blind consumers of the present day. I feel like there aren’t a lot of people who say “Yes, we’ve screwed up in the past, and yes, the plan of record seems to be to continue screwing up, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not going to do that, and I refuse to have accountability for past sins foisted upon me.”

      We can never really undo. We can only do. All decisions, all choices pertain only to the future. I love the call to action at the end of the animated short Wake Up, Freak Out, speaking to the issue of the approaching climate tipping point:

      Those who came before us didn’t know about this problem, and those who come after will be powerless to do anything about it, but for us, there’s still time.

  4. I like your response Zane, and I don’t have enough time now to really continue the discussion, but I would like to say that I generally like humanity and don’t think we ‘deserve’ anything. I just think it is ok to die – as an individual, as a species. It feels natural. I really, really don’t think I want to live past 90. Part of that is inevitable declining mobility, ability, health. Part of that is that I enjoy things so much more when I have an approximate end date for them, perhaps a weird personal perversion. I don’t think I would actively inhibit anyone’s attempts to go forth and prosper.

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