Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thoughts on space, on the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing



It is that time of the year when we look at the sky and think about space. 40 years ago, we watched Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon. And many people are once again asking the question, why did we give up space, and when do we go back? Yes, yes, we have telecom and Earth watching satellites, robotic planetary missions that produce a lot of good science and all that. But... I want to see people in space. Do you?

The IEET blog has a post and a poll on Should off-Earth expansion be a high priority for humanity?. The options given in the poll are: No, we should devote all our resources to solving current problems. - We need to expand, but with biologically modified transhumans. - Yes, to protect our species from extinction in all-out war. - No, because humans will never survive long in space. - Yes, in order to preserve Earth from further ecological damage. - Expansion, yes, but with robots first and humans later. - Other: (enter another option). I voted Other: YES!!

In some sense I tend to agree with the option "We need to expand, but with biologically modified transhumans". I am sure our ultimate destiny in space will be, in the beautiful words of Sir Arthur:

"And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.

In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.

But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.
"

One may think that it makes much more sense to wait for the development of some transhumanist technologies, and then resume our (post-)human adventure in space. There are a lot of valid points in support of this position, but I think they miss a very important point:

We need space. We need it now. We need it for our mental health as a species.

Watching the Moon knowing that other people are living and working there would be a powerful pointer to future, even more daring cosmic journeys, that could contribute to the mental health of the zeitgeist and give us a renewed confidence in the relevance of our lives on this little planet. Not everyone can be a space explorer, but we are all partners and stakeholders in the cosmic future of our species and its "manifest destiny" among the stars. This is a powerful meme that could result not only in much more support for space, but also in a more positive and proactive attitude on other pressing issues, at a moment of our history where we need positive thinking, confidence and optimism.

The last paragraph is from my paper on A Virtual World Space Agency to be published by Futures (Futures 41 (2009) pp. 569-571) (link). I cannot post the full text here, but I wish to post some excerpts:

We need new initiatives able to ignite the imagination of people, especially young people, al over the planet. I have worked for many years in public space agencies, for example in ESA in the eighties and nineties. I used to say that, despite the scientific value of robotic planetary missions, the practical value of communication, earth observation and navigation satellites, and the pragmatism of a cautious approach to crewed space missions based on the shuttle and the space station, their impact on the public at large was nil. In order to support spending money in space, people need to see other people in space taking risks to do momentous things. This is the simple truth that every marketing or advertising professional knows, but paper pushers in government and industry have forgotten.

For the same reason, aseptic orbital or planetary missions do not sufficiently stimulate young people to study science and pursue careers in technology and space, hence also decreasing the available expertise in terms of both quantity and quality. I used to say that the emphasis on cost-effective pragmatic mission with only a scientific return and no PR value would kill both public and political support for space, and the facts have given me reason.

To my knowledge, nobody said this better than William Sims Bainbridge: "To become fully interplanetary, let alone interstellar, our society would need another leap --and it needs that leap very soon before world culture ossifies into secure uniformity. We need a new spaceflight social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society". We need grand cosmic visions and daring exploration projects to muster the drive, energy and commitment to steadily give our best contribution in our chosen fields. Marshall T. Savage published a tentative space exploration and settlement plan, fully compatible with this memetic engineering program and based on current (at the time of writing) science and technology. Savage appreciated that space exploration cannot be disentangled from other industrial and social concerns, and that space settlement will be more a political issue than an engineering problem, and dedicated considerable space to analyzing the best organizational structures and strong criticism to the "standard model" based on national space agencies and big corporations.

Are national space agencies going to take us to space? Are international space agencies going to take us to space? Is industry going to take up to space? In short, no, no, and no.

Who should take the lead?... Why not forming a global P2P space agency of the people, by the people, and for the people? Such a World Space Agency, whose members are not nation-states but individual citizens acting as a focused P2P laser, could act in the best long-term interest of our species and prepare the way for its, our, journey to the stars.