February 24, 2004

Why Go To Space?

OK, OK. I've been promising this for a while. Other people kept writing bits and pieces of what I was thinking, so I decided to bite the bullet and try to put down some of my thoughts, too. These aren't fully formed, and, since this is my blog, I reserve the right to edit or elaborate in future.

Anyone who has known me for any length of time eventually learns that I am a space nut at heart. I have been since as early as I can remember. To try and compose an essay seeking to answer "why should we go to space" is like asking Deep Thought the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

The problem is really with the question. The answer varies depending on the assumptions behind the question. These assumptions are typically that space is too hard or expensive for anyone other than the government to do it. I hope that certain current events may help to prove this premise false. Another assumption is that space is solely for scientific purposes. Many pro-space advocates fall into this trap.

Which is why I was happy today to see Rand Simberg's link to an interesting op-ed by Jim Muncy in the Washington Times. Mr. Muncy's opinion really gets at what I have been trying to write for some time. Key quote (extracted by Rand, too):

"Space exploration is not merely about the wonders of science and technology, although it produces countless discoveries and innovations. It is not merely about stunning images and daring adventures, although it has those aplenty. And to the disbelief of so many space professionals and aficionados alike, it is not even really about outer space. "Rather, space exploration is about strengthening and spreading the very essence of freedom: the magic of going and doing what you want, where you want, when you want and why you want. It is about the endless and innately human quest for a better, wiser and richer life, not just for yourself today but for generations hence. Freedom is as much about the creation and pursuit of new dreams, horizons and challenges as it is about achieving them."

Brian Doss at Catallarchy gets at this latter idea:

"[T]he reason I support Martian colonization is on the general grounds that liberty thrives on the frontier, and that human society does best when there is a frontier to interact with the ancestral land. Innovation is spurred, trade blooms, opportunities abound, and more importantly, there is space to go to help make a new society when you don't like the one you're in. To an extent, America is still the World's frontier, as it is the place most non-Americans go when they want to get away from wherever it was they were born; America is vibrant, young, and constantly re-inventing itself with countless subcultures and communities. But America isn't a true frontier society anymore, and for those of us fortunate enough to have been born here, where does one go when even America is too staid and developed to suit? Well, the old answer is new again- leave for the frontier, which would now be Mars."

Both of these statements really seem to boil down to "we should go to space because it is there, because we can, and, oh yes, it's good for freedom." Most other space policy debate seems to focus almost exclusively on the science to be done, the things to learn. But most people aren't "scientists" and don't want to be scientists. I fear that if we make outer space a reserve for scientists alone, then space will look like Antarctica in the future: a small contingent of on-site researchers, a very small number of "extreme" tourists, and no normal people. Forget for a moment the goals of scientists here on earth. Think of your goals instead. Why do you work each day? What things are important to you? Where do you find beauty? Would you like to strap on a pair of wings and literally fly like a bird in one-sixth Earth's gravity beneath the stars in a lunar resort? Can you see yourself standing at the edge of the Valles Marineris, looking into a canyon system that makes the Grand Canyon look like a small valley? Do you like architecture or music? Think of the possibilities for the forms that buildings could take in the lower gravity of Luna or Mars. What symphonies, what poems, what great novels will the vistas of new planets, new experiences, new pains and losses and challenges stimulate? What new businesses can we create? I think all these aspects of the human experience are of equal value to the abstract knowledge we may gain about the geology, meterology, and chemistry of these new places. I want an outer space future that looks like the world of Heinlein's Rolling Stones or Niven's Known Space; a place where families live and work and grow, where belters mine asteroids and trade goods with Luna, Mars, and Earth. A place indistinguishable from our current civilization, except that we happen to live elsewhere. In other words, a space-based civilization. If we do this, then we will have learned what we need to get our eggs out of this fragile basket. And maybe in the process we will learn just how much more precious is our Earth. Why go to space? To stay.

Posted by JohnL at February 24, 2004 11:15 PM
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