Friday, February 07, 2003

I have a few final thoughts on the Columbia disaster.

:: For some reason, whenever something like this happens and we mourn the people killed in the event, we are reminded of all the hundreds or thousands of people who die each day throughout the country or the world, and whose deaths are generally unremarked except for their immediate circle of family and friends. We're told to "keep it all in perspective", because after all, X number of people die each day in car crashes or in accidental gun discharges or whatnot. I'm never sure what to make when we're reminded of death's omnipresence in our mundane lives; are we being told not to mourn the astronauts because we don't know them? or are we just being told not to mourn them that much, because they -- like so many others -- simply died in the course of the jobs they willingly chose? I'm not sure. "Let's keep it in perspective" is a sane enough proposition, but I'm never sure exactly what perspective we're supposed to be maintaining. I can't speak for anyone else, but I mourn the astronauts because they died in the pursuit of something that I personally hold to be absolutely essential to the future of our species. Not our country, but all of humanity. People who die in service to humanity are, it seems to me, to be mourned even if I don't know any of them personally or even have any personal connection of which I am aware. These people were doing something extraordinary, and it claimed their lives. For that reason I mourn them.

:: The chorus of voices calling for an end to manned spaceflight is predictable, if a bit disheartening. I certainly agree with all those who say that the shuttle program, for all its successes in its flight history, really constitutes a "missing of the boat" as far as humanity's outreach into space is concerned. The reasons for this belief are legion and can be easily found elsewhere (this MSN article and this Usenet post by SF author Charles Stross are good starting points), and I absolutely agree with them. In the opening moments of Cosmos, Carl Sagan describes our early space exploration efforts thusly:

Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows that this is from where we came. We long to return.

Keeping with Sagan's metaphor, it seems that we've tested the water, decided that we like it...and promptly retreated back to the very edge of the beach, there to remain. Having reached once for other worlds, we have decided that low-earth orbit is more to our liking, and everything we have done in terms of manned exploration has been with low-earth orbit in mind. It's a self-perpetuating circle: the shuttle is only fit to get us into low-earth orbit, and for reasons that are bureaucratic to a depressing degree we've put all of our space-eggs in the shuttle basket; this being the case, we are restricted to building our International Space Station in low-earth orbit. So the ISS exists, as Gregg Easterbrook noted recently, to give the shuttle someplace to go, and the shuttle exists to service the ISS.

What's depressing is that it didn't have to be this way. I'm not sure where exactly we went wrong in our space endeavors. Perhaps it was in not developing Project Orion, which was probably the best design for an interplanetary ship available with current human technology. Perhaps it was with the rigid adherence to the shuttle, even after the Soviet Union aborted its own shuttle program as being unacceptably more costly than the good, old, reliable Soyuz rockets. Perhaps it was even partly in the Apollo missions themselves, and in the sense of anti-climax that inevitably set in once the Moon was no longer a goal to be reached but someplace we'd already been.

I keep thinking about the disconnect between the world as it exists now and the world as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gary Westfahl may be partly correct in that science fiction has conditioned us to expect space colonization, but I think there is a reason for this. After all, science fiction does not exist in a vacuum. Somewhere, somehow, we really do expect to take to the stars. Or at least we did.

What's really bothering me about the "Let the robots do it" crowd isn't so much that they are unconvinced that manned spaceflight is desirable; it's that in a saddeningly large number of cases, they are telling us: "Forget it; space colonization is so 1960s; let the dreams of the old people go and get some new dreams." God, how that stings! I may not be properly "young" anymore, but I'm certainly no old fart. I'm only 31; Neil Armstrong had been back from the Moon for two years when I was born. And yet I've always believed that humanity's destiny lies beyond the fragile sphere of earth; I can't remember not believing it. It's looking less and less likely that it will come to pass in my lifetime, which I find depressing enough, but now there are people who not only don't see it, but they don't want to see it. Witness the words of Kevin Drum, who is one of the most forward-thinking bloggers I've yet encountered, a guy not adverse to thinking in terms of the future:

But the worst part is the final sentence, which I've seen repeated over and over: we need to colonize Mars (or whatever) so that humanity will live on in case we blow ourselves to smithereens here on Earth.

There's really no polite way to put this, but the notion is simply nonsensical. Do space enthusiasts keep writing this stuff because their neurons stop firing before they put finger to keyboard, or is it just that they've been saying it for so long that it's become a habit? Do they have any idea how dumb the proposition really is?

Now, to be sure, I'm not totally sure on what Kevin is attacking here; it may not so much be the idea of space exploration and colonization at all that's got his goat, as opposed to a belief that we've done well for where we are technologically but if we're going to make some real progress we need to wait a while. If the latter, than he's somewhat correct, but I have to point out again that at least some of this work has been done, but it's either been ignored in favor of bureaucratically-favored means of doing things (i.e., the shuttle) or shelved for other reasons (Orion). But if Kevin genuinely believes that the entire proposition of colonizing other worlds is dumb -- not just now, but forever -- then I have to pray this view does not take root in society as a whole.

It most certainly is not dumb to worry about what might happen when a large rock in space happens to intersect Earth's orbit when Earth just happens to be there already. Space is a staggeringly violent place (just look at the lunar surface) and Earth's biosphere is fairly fragile, at least as far as specific organisms go (just look at those neat skeletons at the Museum of Natural History). It's simply not starry-eyed wishful-thinking to consider that, if such a rock were to strike tomorrow, the species that produced Shakespeare and Beethoven and Miles Davis and Frank Lloyd Wright and Hayao Miyazaki and Gandhi and Jesus would be gone, with nothing left behind save the Voyager spacecraft to tell the tiniest part of the tale. Now, if President Bush were to do what President Kennedy did, and forcefully set us on the road to establishing a Mars colony; and if that colony were established in, say, 2035; and if that colony consisted of, say, twenty men and women; and if while they were there the asteroid hit...humanity would end anyway. That colony would not be enough, not by a long shot nor by a damned sight. I'm not sure if this, too, is what Kevin is getting at; but I have to note that the failure of Jamestown did not sour the European colonials on the Americas. (Fully admitting, of course, the faultiness of comparing the colonization of America to that of space.)

But the problem with such pronouncements is that we are rarely afforded the opportunity to say, "OK, now we know enough; now we're ready; now we can safely assess our chances of success and survival." This is true of just about anything. It's true of graduate students who do, at some point, have to stop researching and start writing the thesis, and it's true of a species that wishes to colonize the other worlds in its solar system. Our efforts in space might fail over the short term; the last twenty-five years of our space program might eventually be more notable for what we've learned not to do than for any know-how we've accumulated. But I remain convinced that five hundred years from now, our post-human descendents will look up at the sky from their homes on Mars and on the moons of Jupiter and wherever else, and they will think back to this time in history, and they will think, "That's when this began."

Call it a dumb dream, if you will. I prefer to call it a vision.

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