On manned spaceflight

I’m going to indulge in a bit of protracted opinion here, because this is a topic that’s important to me. Unlike the general theme of this admittedly heretofore short blog, it has nothing to do with graduate school or French. Forgive me.

I was inspired tonight by this article on Ars Technica about NASA’s new budget. Go ahead and read it for details. My take on the issue is: okay, I admit it’s probably a good idea for NASA to get out of the putting-people-in-low-orbit game, because they don’t seem to have much direction for it. With that said, I don’t want to think that NASA is headed down a path where it lets private companies handle all of the heavy lifting. I’d rather not have Sony be the first entity to land a human being on Mars, for example. A government agency should be the ones to conquer that frontier for the first time, using money drawn from all of us. Furthermore, NASA has lost sight of its former grand vision, both from lack of funds and lack of political & national will.

A brief aside: I’ve been watching Mad Men a lot recently. I never realized how great a show it is before. It really transports you back to the 1960’s. You’re struck not only by the vastly different attitudes about nearly everything, but also by the lack of the technological comforts we take for granted – someone has a car crash in the middles of night and nowhere, and this is a very serious problem because she doesn’t have a cell phone.

Now, think about that time again, the 1960’s. There are no cell phones, no computers to speak of, not even any pocket calculators. And yet, a bunch of smart folks put a human being of the surface of the Moon. No one even appreciates what this means – 252,088 miles. The guys in those vehicles took 4 days to get there going at thousands of meters per second. All I can say is, I’ll buy any of them a beer any day of the week.

Why did we, and they, do it? Because we wanted to beat “the Reds?” Sure, but I’d like to think there was something else in American society that drove us. President Kennedy knew it, and he tapped it. I say that potential exists in human society, not just American society. We just have to let it show outside of a Cold War.

Conservatives will balk at this proposition; the idea that we use taxpayers’ money to get to Mars? Oh the horror. “For what reason, for what purpose, are we bankrolling a trip to Mars?” they’ll ask. I’m sure they asked it about the Moon then, and they’re right to ask it now. What benefit to us is a rock millions of miles from us?

To the conservatives’ pleasure, I’m sure, the immediate answer is admittedly “not much,” except of course to the scientists. Of course, their research inevitably brings improvements in our lives down the road – it usually has, over the course of history. There’s a greater issue, however, than our benefit from such things. Let me show you something:

This photo was taken by one of the Voyager probes. See that dot? That’s you. Not only is it you, but it’s everything you know, and everyone you know. Every single event that’s ever happened in your entire life, and in the lives of everyone you know, and in the life of every other human being that has ever lived in all of history… happened on that speck. Carl Sagan said something similar on seeing this image, and it couldn’t be simpler.

The universe is incomprehensibly vast, and the happenings on one little speck such as this have no impact on that vast elsewhere around us. That’s not to say that human life is meaningless. Quite the contrary, we’re lucky enough to be among the matter in the universe arranged in such a way as to be capable of self-reflection. Planets, stars, rocks, water, dust, gas… most things in the universe can’t reflect on themselves. We have a gift. With that, and our speck, in mind, my question is simple. What are we doing here? If we have this gift of self-reflection that most matter doesn’t have, shouldn’t we be doing our best to have that mean as much as possible in the vastness?

Robert Zubrin, ambitious though he is in his proposed plans for Mars exploration, cites a human duty, and I agree with him. We have a duty to life itself to spread life, because most things in the universe are not alive and thinking, but rather are inert and cold. If we can make Mars a living world, followed by any number of planets, we should do it. We can’t destroy native ecosystems, if we find any, but evidence so far shows us that we won’t find them often – most planets are rocks & gas, and not much else.

So, I guess my concluding point is that while we could stay on our speck for the duration of our race, it seems as though our existence as human beings would mean a lot more if we reached out. We’ll never be able to physically explore the whole universe, but we can at least live up to the great gift that we have as a thinking race of people. Am I idealistic? Absolutely, but someone has to be.

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