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.