“Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of a breeze” – Carl Sagan
The frontier has been rather obscure of late. In the sixties it seemed we knew where we were going. Our future was ‘out there’ in the inky black. Since then we have seen a number of great leaps backward. The space shuttle has been grounded, major world powers have shown diminished interest without the motivational influence of the cold war, and projects of great potential within our technological capabilities, such as manned missions to Mars and the robotic exploration of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, have been shelved. However the public fascination of space is undiminished and is popularized in the media by celebrity scientists like Neil Degrasse-Tyson and Brian Cox, corporations are taking an interest and new national space programs in Asia are taking their first tentative steps skyward but there remain societal and psychological barriers. The fault is in ourselves not in our stars. No matter what wonders await us, known or unknown, we find reasons to remain in the safety of our terrestrial cradle. I have always been baffled by this hesitancy but I have come to believe it results largely, not from a misguided view of space exploration itself (though this is certainly a factor), but from a negative view of ourselves as a species and one that I can’t get on board with. Shame of one’s own species tends to market itself as a form of prudence or pragmatism but a more exultant view of the human project need not be impractical. On the contrary, I believe it is the only practical outlook.
The more well-meaning objections to expanding into space are those relating to the financial and material resources needed. Such commitments demanding great investment would surely be better made to solving problems here on Earth, particularly those of global poverty and environmental degradation. Those who put forward this argument are labouring under the misapprehension that ambition and responsibility are mutually exclusive. In terms of the environment, their argument is self-refuting in the sense that these missions are entirely complementary to their goals. It was our study of the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus that helped us understand its potential effects here on Earth. As for Mars, the first comprehensive study of ‘nuclear winter’ was based on conditions observed after planetary dust storms in the Martian atmosphere. Many scientists believe Mars once had a biosphere, or at least the conditions necessary to support one, thus further exploration and potential manned missions could be invaluable to our understanding of climatic degradation and reinforce the need to care for our home planet. Experiments in planetary engineering and colonisation may even yield new methods of addressing whatever damage our presence is inflicting on the Earth. Solutions to environmental problems will inevitably rely on technological advancement and growth of the kind that space exploration stimulates like no other endeavour.
But how can we justify expanding beyond the Earth when so many on it languish in poverty? It could be argued that it is easy for those of us who have had a privileged enough existence to study astronomy or read science fiction to dream of the stars while others struggle just to stay alive, in this sense investment in space could be seen as ‘elitist’. This argument, while certainly emotionally compelling, I find somewhat condescending; the assumption that those living without the privileges we enjoy are not capable of ambitious dreams. Dr Sagan recounted a trip by a colleague to New Guinea where she visits a tribe almost completely ignorant of Western civilisation and modern technology but they know of Apollo 11 and the names of its astronauts, they wanted to know “who was visiting the moon these days”. I challenge anyone not to feel humbled by this account; it illustrates the power of new discoveries to transcend cultural, social and economic divisions. Greater investment in NASA and other exploratory institutions will not have a detrimental effect on our attempts to solve problems of poverty. In fact we know from experience, particularly those of us who live or have lived in Africa, that throwing money at the problem alone does not work and, in many cases, exacerbates it. What is required to solve these problems, to whatever extent that it can be achieved, is a far more complex range of fundamental social and political changes. Furthermore, like the environment, solutions to poverty will involve, at least in part, technological advancements (particularly in areas such as agriculture and energy). If you are still convinced that space programs take up resources much needed elsewhere, look up a chart of the annual expenditure on space exploration compared to the global military budget; it is a drop in the ocean to our great shame.
Although rather misguided, these objections are at least grounded in good intentions. However, a disturbing trend has emerged, particularly over the last two decades. There is a certain abject attitude towards the human race to be found in contemporary pseudo-intellectual circles. It is not unusual for great dreams and ambitions for humanity’s future to be met with a tone of sneering mockery. This sometimes relates to the unrealistic nature of these ambitions such as the technological demands of colonisation and the difficulty of developing propulsion systems that could carry us to other star systems. It is paradoxical that some of the proponents of this argument often raise the same concerns about the environment I mentioned previously, when in fact they display the same lack of imagination and short-term attitude that led to our environmental problems in the first place. I was gratified to see that Christopher Nolan’s recent science fiction epic, Interstellar, gave a warning of sorts about the dangers of this kind of attitude. Of course we don’t yet possess anywhere near the technology required for interstellar travel and planetary colonisation schemes remain threadbare at best, but to presume to know what is (or is not) ultimately possible is both arrogant and defeatist. To illustrate how fatuous this line of argument is, imagine showing the Large Hadron Collider (or even just an iPhone) to an eighteenth century alchemist. Technological advancements on the scale of ‘deep time’ will simply be beyond our understanding and, unless we destroy ourselves first, which is by no means foregone, incredible technological advances are inevitable. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.
But there is more to this change in the social Zeitgeist than merely an obsession with short-term practicality. Delve a little deeper and you will most likely find a kind of will to self-destruction. Over the last century, untold suffering, genocide, war and damage to the environment have created a cultural environment conducive to a particular view of the human race as an infection on an otherwise idyllic planet. How humanity has spoiled itself and its environment, wouldn’t it be better if we just faded into oblivion? One of the greatest crimes of modern bien pensant thinking has been to nurture the view that ambition constitutes naïve escapism whereas the hard-won truth is best represented by a cynical view of humanity. In fact, the opposite is true. Self-abnegation and defeatism relieves one of the duty to think about problems creatively, it is the easy way out. To think of the human race as a long-term project, on a scale of millennia, expands the remit of critical thought and encourages us to think of problems in terms of solutions and opportunities.
There is another notion to consider in all this: our responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to the universe at large. Some people seem to think that nature would be better off without us to ruin it, but without us, who is there to bear witness to it all? It is highly likely, given the vastness of the cosmos, that there are other civilisations scattered throughout the universe but we are not entitled to take this as an axiom. The scientific method dictates that we cannot assume anything without conclusive evidence. For all we know we are the only sentient beings in the universe, thus we are the means by which the universe is able to think about itself, to become self-aware – to quote the philosopher, Alan Watts, “the universe dreams through our dreams”
We are a complex and troubled species, but we are capable of so much. We have irrepressible genetic personality and a tendency to exceed our own expectations if we just dare to stretch ourselves (as evidenced by recent grand successes in projects such as CERN, Curiosity and Rosetta). It is essential that we don’t allow ourselves the luxury of complacency or defeatism as we have a responsibility to fulfil our potential.
As Carl Sagan put it: “Our planet and our solar system are surrounded by a new world ocean, the depths of space, it is no more impassable than the last.”