Why I Care About Space Exploration

PIA17041I feel a bit odd writing this. For one thing, many of my friends are already quite heavily invested emotionally in space activism, and for them, caring goes without saying. For those who don’t care, a number of assumptions I suspect they make will lead them to think that caring is quirky or worse. But I have come to think over time not only that space exploration is one of the most important things we can be doing with our intelligence, energy and resources, but that the difference between the extent to which that is the case, and the extent to which people care about it is so great, that talking about it is important.

But first, the assumptions. I admit that I was once enamored with the adventures portrayed in the science fiction novels I read as a young boy, and I know that people who are left cold by space exploration often think that it is a special interest driven by psychologically immature men who want to live the fantasy by proxy. Second, I am well aware of the fact that manned space exploration has always involved funding to corporations which were also defense contractors, that defense spending is high and that war is bad. I am well aware of the fact that the heyday of manned space exploration in this country was intertwined with assertion of national prestige during the Cold War. For many people, that, and the fact that every penny spent on manned space exploration could just as easily be spent on, say, medical research that might save lives, or income redistribution that might improve their quality, settles it. When you put all these considerations together, it is quite natural for some people to think that manned space exploration is simply indefensible. This is compounded by the fact that people interested in space science sometimes themselves argue that knowledge about our universe is best pursued with telescopes and robots, and for people for whom this knowledge is not very interesting anyway, that clinches it. Manned space exploration is a peculiarly pointless and expensive kind of male ego massage. For those suspicious of technology itself who yearn for a simpler, more bucolic way of life, spending money on technology is bad enough, but spending money on useless male ego massaging technology is about the worst thing imaginable. We have to get these thoughts up front and out in the open, because without addressing them head-on, I am preaching to the choir.

Before we turn to costs, which are surprisingly negligible, let us focus on reasons and values. For me, there are three things that bring me back again and again to space.

From time to time, I travel to the Oregon Coast to get away from it all, to have some solitude, to still all the inner chatter for a time and just be. There’s this one spot in particular I like to go to, which is a state park by the shore. To get there, I use my car and the roads, and when I get there, I take advantage of the state park facilities, especially maintained trails, observation platforms, etc. Because we tend to think of such spaces in terms of preventing them from being lost to other uses, protecting them from destruction, we tend to forget that part of the reason for that is so that we may experience the “spiritual” value of direct contact with the natural world, the sublimity of that, the inexpressible truths we learn from these sorts of experiences. Now suppose that I were to say that we should prevent people from going to state parks at all, in fact, we should not have any facilities that make these experiences possible, because you can just as easily learn about nature from wikipedia, or, in a pinch, a well-positioned webcam? Suppose I were to argue that you could provide one free hot meal a day for ten poor people for every park ranger you fired? Would you “go” for that? Maybe you should. Maybe maintaining state parks is just a silly way of symbolically massaging female egos…

Yes, that’s a reductio, and a strange one. But for me, one of the top three reasons for manned space exploration is that the sublimity of making other worlds experienceable directly to at least some human beings is “an end in itself.” It need not be justified in terms of scientific knowledge or job creation any more than state parks do. If you do not know about this sublimity, like some city kid who never had a field trip to a farm, I want to urge you to get out more. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy to experience what mountain climbing on Mars might be like. Watch the film For All Mankind and listen to the words of the people who walked on the moon, and the ineffable, transcendent  character of the experience they had there. Notice that but for Apollo photography of Earth, there would very likely have never been an Earth Day at all. Now I know what you’re thinking. These are very small numbers of people having these experiences, far fewer than the numbers who utilize our state and national parks, and the costs we’re talking about are of an entirely different order. But the more human space exploration there is, the cheaper it becomes, and the more people there are who have access to these experiences. Before you judge them to be valueless, be sure you have some notion of what these experiences are, for they are not, at their heart, “male ego massage” but experiences of transcendence, awareness of how much vaster and stranger and more beautiful the universe is than we in our daily lives can easily imagine.

That leads me to the second reason. When I listen to music, read poetry or look at paintings, I never forget that in order for these things to be produced, and in order for them to subsist for any length of time, communities must exist to preserve them and to preserve the capacity for understanding and appreciating them. And yet these communities are tenuous, imperiled things for reasons that might not occur to you: because humanity itself is a tenuous, imperiled thing. I grew up during the Cold War, and apart from however that made me experience the “space race” it also taught me one thing that we now find inconceivable (or turn into entertainment because we find it inconceivable): humanity itself can die. This thought was the source of considerable moral pathos back in the day, and people at one time marched to ban nuclear weapons testing, to create nuclear-free zones, etc. Many people are especially moved by the thought that aggression, ego, nationalism, and a kind of short-sightedness about the consequences of our priorities and actions could some day inadvertently lead to our destruction; some of the most haunting writing I recall as a teenager was prophetic science fiction about nuclear war. The thought that our own short-sightedness might destroy us and everything we’ve created and value is a powerful one.

However, it is possible to be even more blind than short-sighted human beings. The dinosaurs were. Like us, they took for granted that the ground under their feet was solid and the sky above them was safe. But the universe is a very big place, and it is full of objects that are, you might say, nature’s own nukes. If you want to see what they can do, look at a photograph of the moon: all those craters were caused. We have the protection of the atmosphere, which burns up and disperses the small stuff that collides with us. The bigger stuff can be much more destructive, and on very rare occasions, can cause planetwide extinction events. Now we tend to think of extinction in terms of the human impact on other species, but actually extinction is the norm: 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, and our contribution to that total is negligible. Read the following sentence from Wikipedia, and think about it: “Most simply, any species that cannot survive and reproduce in its environment and cannot move to a new environment where it can do so, dies out and becomes extinct.” Flip that: in order to avoid dying out and becoming extinct, one thing a species must do is diversify the habitats in which lives, in the event that some habitats become impossible to live in. Of course we tend to think of this idea in terms of nonhuman species (no one likes to imagine their own death, let alone that of their whole species) and we think of the sum of all habitats as existing on earth. But in a very real sense, Earth is our “habitat”. Rare circumstances can make it impossible to survive and reproduce here. Diversifying our habitats means increasing the number of planets we sustainably live on, becoming a multiplanetary species. Colonizing other worlds not only opens up new possibilities of human experience, some of them beyond our imagining, it also means that it is less likely that a day will come when, owing to the blind stupidity of lifeless nature and our own tragic short-sightedness, everyone capable of experiencing Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and all their children, and children’s children, are dead.

Which brings me to children. Remember the old Morgenbesserism about how B.F. Skinner insists that we should not anthropomorphize human beings? We are too quick to say that viewing the world as a place filled with opportunity for adventure and wonderment is childish. (And it would be dreadfully sexist to say that it is merely boyish, that girls have no interest in adventure or wonderment.) But you know who should view the world childishly? Children should. We do them no service if we arrange our affairs so that the best we can tell them is that the world used to be filled with opportunities for adventure and wonderment, but now it is only filled with opportunities for sober maturity, labor and service. When things go well, children grow into mature adults whose useful contribution to the world is also one which they themselves find meaningful, and one of the central ways we come to find our adult activities meaningful is by connecting them with our childhood fantasies of what adult activities seemed thrilling to us. You can learn a lot about humanity, and about children, by noticing what kinds of careers children fantasize about. A firefighter has the power to save lives, a doctor has the power to heal and ease suffering. An astronaut has the power to transcend the everyday,  to reveal new worlds. We can always tell children, yes, your dream is a possibility. For some of them, they will become their dream. For others they will do something less grand but meaningfully related to it. For some reason, one of the perennial favorites is “astronaut.” Do you want to turn the possibility of becoming an astronaut into another Santa story, another lie we indulge in until the child is old enough and strong enough to accept the truth that, no, there is no Santa, and there are no such things as astronauts? But a child is hope incarnate, and one of the greatest sins is to unnecessarily sadden a child.

Those are some of the reasons why, whenever I hear someone say that we can better spend the money on ourselves, on Earth, I think: this is to spend money on ourselves, on Earth. Also, if I may let the little boy that still lives in me have the last word: rockets are really cool.

 

Photo Credit: Orbits of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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