Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Space: Our Forgotten Frontier of Manned Exploration?

I struggled with this blog posting for weeks, (which helped to make this a late entry) until I read a speech by astronomer Brian May, PhD, published in Astronomy magazine (February 2012) titled "What are We Doing in Space?" If you recognize the name Brian May and wonder why it sounds familiar, you may know Dr. May by his other career as the famed guitarist for the rock band Queen. Dr. May gave this speech at the first STARMUS Festival in the Canary Islands, where a distinguished group of scientists, astronauts, artists, and musicians had gathered from around the world to discussed the space sciences in a forum for the public. While Dr. May and I have different opinions about the future, I cannot disagree with his points regarding the nature of man and his affect on the planet Earth. Dr. May wrapped the thrust of ideas that I have been pondering, not only for the last few weeks but for many years, into his speech. This speech helped put my own thoughts into the structure of this blog.

Dr. May is the co-author with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, of Bang! The Complete History of the Universe and Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. You may also learn more about Dr. May and his opinions at

Where Are We Going in Space Exploration?   
Dr. May has seen much of the world and is a professional astronomer, so how do I challenge him in his opinion.  I don't. In fact there is only one point of disagreement that I have with his position, and that is the need that we hold space exploration until the point when we can fix certain social, economic, and environmental issues and be better human beings. I wish with all my heart that I could agree that we could wait so long. I am not a professional astronomer. I have a minor, or had a certification to teach, general science, social studies, and language arts. I earned these certifications with my bachelor's degree due to my pursuit of science, history, and writing courses. I have been a student of history since late elementary school and astronomy since the first time I ever looked up in the space. My earliest memory is watching a rocket launch on the news.  I have no idea how old I was.  Half of my minor in general science was through the study of astronomy and astrophysics. But in truth, I am nothing more than an amateur astronomer (at best), writer, and philosopher.

The one problem with creating a better human being is the question of who gets to determine when we are better humans. This question has been used and abused over time by people who do not have the best intentions of humanity in mind. But to address Dr. May's vision, we would need to create a utopia. One problem with a true utopia is that it will lack the struggle that gives birth to innovation and creativity. In short it would be hell on Earth for all artists, musicians, and writers. The history of exploration is a history of mankind struggling to discover what is beyond the horizon, make a better world for himself, or discover resources that are needed.

I admit, wholeheartedly, the fact that political, business, and military or militaristic philosophy have always driven man's exploration is a sad truth of history. Man has explored this world, finding new resources and new lands to expand and colonize. Arguments can be made as to the rights of those governments to have colonized, and in many cases, exploited the lands and people in which they have found. On those lands they had warred with local inhabitants, conquered, and exploited — even to the point of slavery — the indigenous populations. This barbaric past cannot be forgotten.

It is in the same spirit of past exploration and colonization that mankind had first ventured into space. After the Second World War, the nations of the United States of America and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics along with their allies were engaged in the Cold War. The rivalry for prestige, military power, and advancement of national goals lead the Soviet Union and the United States to venture into space and eventually land on the Moon. The original capsule launches looked like something that could have been found in a novel by Jules Verne. Even the Apollo mission capsules that landed on the Moon would be primitive by today's technology.

The landing on the Moon was as much about politics and military might as it was about scientific exploration. This fact does not take away anything from the bravery and spirit in which the astronauts traveled to the Moon nor the same courage expressed by all of the astronauts and cosmonauts that led the Apollo missions into space and all those which followed after. Yet, after the great achievement of man first walking on an extraterrestrial body and opening the door to space exploration beyond the near space of Earth, after 50 years, we have not returned. In fact after the Apollo 11 mission, funding for the remaining Apollo missions and other space exploration waned. As if the Apollo mission sounded a death knell, the Soviet Union's plans to land on the Moon faded as fog burned by the sun.

Dr. May pointed out in his speech, "Those 50 years have seen thousandfold leaps in expertise, computer technology, the birth of the Internet — how come this outreach into space stalled? Buzz [Aldrin] told in his address that after the clear objective of the first Moon landing had been achieved, it became harder to be clear about the objective and harder to keep the support for the continuing exploration going. Yes, that must be so. But it's tempting to also theorize that the political powers -that - be did not see any immediate advantage in pursuing this path any further. They turned their eyes into other directions. And they were actually quite open about it. [President] Kennedy spoke of man's ambition to explore the cosmos in pursuit of pure knowledge, but the word Star Wars was coined to describe the ambitions of the development of unmanned weaponry in space designated by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s...meanwhile, the mighty Saturn rockets no longer roared, and the Moon was left alone."

It was sometime from the time in which the Apollo missions ended and the birth of the Space Shuttle program in the United States. With the rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union less intense in the space race, the people as well as the government of the United States seemed to lose interest in manned space exploration. Instead we launched robotic probes to the far reaches of our solar system, satellites around the Earth, and left exploration in the hands of those who could press buttons or maneuver joysticks in remote control.

Maybe it is because I came from people who ventured everything to explore the New World and create a new life on a new continent, either my Native American heritage that came to this continent over an ice bridge during the Ice Age or my European heritage of immigrants who came to the New World over two centuries, gives me the view that it is exploration that pushes man more than anything can be done by a sterile remote control and it is this spirit of independence that explorers all share in the exploration that defines mankind beyond any political, business, or militaristic shortsighted philosophical objectives. Mankind is meant for more than sitting and watching events unfold around him. It is human — the very definition and nature of our curiosity that has led us from the Stone Age into the Industrial Age — to explore and overcome the obstacles that the new and the unknown create for us. 

The Collapse of the Manned Space Program

The United States finds itself in a new day and age of space exploration, for better or for worse, where our government has turned away from NASA manned missions, not yet replacing the Space Shuttle, and is looking to the private industry sector to take man to the next step of this endeavor. Before it sounds as if I am anti-private industry in space, let it be said that I believe such a step of private industry launching into space is long overdue. History has shown us that were first the explorer goes he is soon followed by the merchant prince in independent trader. Like any other visionary who looks upon the face of the Moon standing on Earth, I do not want to see the golden arches of McDonald's or a huge shopping mall suddenly appear in the Sea of Tranquility. But despite such dreamy visions of space exploration being conducted for the purpose of scientific exploration is at best a naive dream. Even if mankind, through a single nation or through some form of an alliance, actually colonized the Moon, or an asteroid, or another planet in the solar system, with the sole purpose of scientific advancement and discovery the merchant would soon follow.

Yet, manned space exploration lays in tattered ruins as we primitively cling to the cradle of mankind like a baby scared to take more than his first steps into a new world. With the end of the Space Shuttle program, and the fleet of Space Shuttles in moth balls, the United States must turn to its old rival of Russia to place astronauts on the International Space Station. Meanwhile, NASA would need to rebuild its man space program, including the training of said astronauts, unless the United States acts quickly to restore the program in some manner. To do this now would require a lot of money. To do this later would require an even larger monetary investment.

The United States is not the only one in the position of not having a manned space program. (I am not ignoring the continued participation of astronauts on the International Space Station, I am referring solely to the fact that United States and other nations do not have a delivery vehicle at this time.) The European Space Agency, the China National Space Administration, the Indian Space Research Organization and many others have to either build or rebuild their manned space program. In fact, from what I have been able to research, it appears that only the Russian Federal Space Agency is currently providing manned missions into space.

However, despite the prestige of being the only agency to be able to actually place its own astronauts (cosmonauts) as well as those astronauts of other nations into space, the Russian Federal Space Agency is facing huge budget crunches due to the cost of continued operation of the International Space Station and the collapse of the world economic markets over the last few years. If Russia decided to discontinue its ability to put man into space on its own, and follow in the footsteps of NASA, stepping beyond the threshold of Earth may be even further off than we first ever dreamed.

At some point soon, it is my hope, private industry will have the ability to shuttle personnel to the International Space Station and beyond. The reliance on a private company to be the sole explorer of space and the planets in our solar system is as dangerous and distasteful in my mind as relying on the goodwill of shortsighted politicians with their own political and militaristic agendas. What is the solution? 

The answer lies in the hands of those who would be willing to push for man to reach out beyond our planet back into space as those who lived in the United States and Russia did in the race to reach the Moon. This is an expensive endeavor. I can hear many readers arguing that before we go into space we have a lot of work to do here on Earth in conquering poverty, pollution, social issues, and finding a way to live peacefully among ourselves. Those of you who would propose such requirements before we venture further with manned space exploration are in line with the thoughts stated by Dr. May in his speech. I would propose to you that such a position is only slightly less shortsighted than a political or militaristic agenda would be.

Why Not Focus on Our Problems Here?

I am not ignoring the fact that we, as human beings, have a lot of maturing to do. We still war on each other because of a difference of opinion, religion, the color of our skin, or over precious minerals and resources. We still face overwhelming poverty around the world, epidemics and pandemics, nations more interested in keeping power than giving their people freedom and liberty. We still have slavery in this world. We have problems with our politicians and militaristic ambitions. And regardless if global warming is a reality or scientific error based on the evidence, the fact is we have done a lot of damage to this world which is unique and precious and our birthplace.

One day, we will strip this planet of all the resources that we have. We will run out of oil and gas. We will run out of other minerals and organic material such as forests and animals. We will run out of coal and other energy sources that are nonrenewable. This isn't some "liberal" expression of treating mother Earth better. It is a simple fact that there is only so much resources available on this planet. If I were to take a gallon of gas from a gas tank and say that this is all the gas that is left and people were to use an eyedropper to take what gas they wanted from that gallon of gasoline I have in my gas tank, no matter how rationed the gas might be, or how few ounces and eyedropper may take, it will be drained eventually.

Our population on this Earth is growing and growing and growing. We are pushing our planet and its resources to the envelope's edge. Someone once compared the concept of "pushing the envelope" to a real envelope. When you push the envelope you are raising things to the upper right-hand part of a chart. When you consider that same chart to be an envelope itself, is not hard to remember that it is the upper right-hand corner where the postage is canceled. I do not believe that we have the time to wait for us to solve our social issues before we go any further into space.

Poverty is a dangerous social issue. Some of those impoverished are there because they don't know how to get out of the cycle of poverty and others are in poverty because of circumstances in life beyond their control or expectation. We have tried to solve poverty and social issues for thousands of years. We have failed. Failure does not mean to stop attempting to find a solution of some kind. It is a fact that as long as there is a form of currency that represents man-hours and resources, poverty will always exist, though it may be redefined on its levels. The likelihood that currency won't ever go away is as unlikely as an asteroid not burning up in the Earth, falling through my roof, and striking my head as I am typing this at this very second.

The social issue of human slavery still exists. Over 150 years since the abolishment of slavery began and spread across the world, to finally be outlawed in international law in 1948 as provided in the UN Declaration of Human Rights Article 4, mankind is still found a way to enslave its brother and sister. There is still forced labor, child slavery, and sex slavery in this world. We have come closer to ending slavery today than we have at any other time in our long history on this Earth. Despite that, I do have to wonder if we will ever solve it. Regardless if we go into space or not, the question of slavery, I think, will always be with us in some form. Our enhancements in computer technology, robotics, quantum physics, and DNA manipulation can easily lead to the creation of something else that could be used in place of a human slave. While I do not wish to get into the philosophical debate at this moment, I will raise the question that if we create either a sentient robot or are able to create a living species design to do our manual labor for us, will we not be enslaving this new life?

The fact that our population has been exploding beyond anything we have ever seen in history gives me only a little pause. Nature has a way of correcting this over balance. Mankind has had war and disease has ravaged our population before. We've improved medical science to the point where many of these diseases are no longer prevalent in our lives, but they still exist and can evolve into something more dangerous. Furthermore, terrorist and governments do experiment in toxic biological agents that can be weaponized. Despite the fact that nature, or the nature of man, can rebalance the population, we cannot forget another method. Not long ago, in the terms of history, nations sent their overpopulation or their unwanted to the colonies. Those colonies evolved into new nations. I believe that this process will happen in space exploration, regardless if we wish to do it or not, and as a result will reduce the strain on our planet.

The problem with the environmental damage that we have done to this Earth cannot solely be solved by sitting here in the middle of the mess we created. When you have created such a mess that you must clean up, sometimes you have to step outside of the mess to even begin to correct it. I know I am being over simplistic when I use the idea of a broom and a dust pan in relationship to the amount of pollution and damage that we have done, but how easy have you ever found sweeping up the mess when you are standing in the center of it? Usually, it is easier to attack from the edge of the outside and slowly sweep the mess into the dust pan. I will explain how space exploration and colonization would be more beneficial to fixing this mess than simply trying to sit here and solve it by political treaty or governmental regulation. Anyone who believes all it will take is political treaty and international cooperation to solve this issue needs to look carefully at the growing economies and their treatment of the pollution issue as well as a failure of cooperation in the Kyoto Protocol — didn't Canada just leave that protocol?

It is more than likely we will take these problems, as well as problems in which I have not addressed, with us in the space. It is a part of our racial culture and history. It is a part in which I can wish that there was some kind of giant eraser or big delete key that could somehow fix this part of mankind. There isn't. And every time we tried to make man "better" we somehow make things worse. So the idea of waiting until somehow we are able to kick ourselves in the backside and get our act straight may as well be waiting for doomsday to occur. I believe our civilization will continue to evolve. Even if we have a new dark age of some kind, mankind will find a way to mature. But it is the act of exploration of ourselves as well as our environment, which now includes space, which will lead us to this maturity.

We Must Go!

It may have appeared that I have laid out the very arguments that many have used to explain that we are not ready for space exploration. Guess what? I have. The fact is the human race will mature at its own speed. We all have our formative years growing up. We all could not wait until we reached a certain age in which then we could do something. Maybe that something was to drive, vote, get out of school, have a family, or whatever. There's always been something that drove our individual maturity and I believe that there will always be something to promote and push our maturity as a race of humans. Regardless of our maturity level now, we need to go back into space. The reason for this is simple.

Space technology has advanced technology in other industries. This space technology and its adaption to our lives as it could be on the Moon or other planets and asteroids could be used to help fix or discover new ways to correct the pollution issue that we face as a race on Earth. If global warming is as dire as many have made it out to be, then what are we waiting on? We should be adapting and exploring the technology that would be needed for colonization and space exploration and applying them in those endeavors as well as that of cleaning up our mess.

In addition to our pollution issue there is a phenomenon in which I find sad to the point of almost pathetic in which space exploration and colonization can help solve. Maybe it is just me, but have you noticed how much of our focus in this world is on doomsday? Maybe this is just a European or American thing, but I don't think so. I have lived through at least five predicted doomsdays and, assuming everyone is wrong about 2012 being the end, I am about to live through my sixth. 

Despite all the predictions of doomsday, there is one fact that cannot be ignored. There will be a doomsday for this Earth. We might blow ourselves up, make the world uninhabitable either by pollution or biological weaponry, nature may change the world to being uninhabitable in response to our pollution, or one of the million other events may occur. The fact is our universe and our world is dangerous. We could be hit by an asteroid, a nearby star could go supernova and send massive radiation our direction which would end our lives, or we might commit racial suicide.

Despite all of those predictions, either religious, scientific or pseudoscientific, in all the arguments that experts will make about the environment, economics, or any social issues mankind faces, there is one fact that we can agree on: whether it happens tomorrow, a thousand years, or billions of years from now, the burning plasma ball that we call our sun will expand into a red giant swallowing the Earth and retreat into a white dwarf in its death. Our sun will use up its hydrogen and grow cold. When this happens, it won't just take the Earth or whatever remains of humanity. It will take Michelangelo, Aristotle, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Lao Tzu, Einstein, Hawkings, Charles W. Chestnut, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Nelson Mandela, Homer, Leonardo da Vinci, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, and William Shakespeare and all that we have been through as a race  — all of our tears, all of our sweat, all of our toils, and all of the generations before us and those that will follow us with all of their dreams and hopes — will have been for nothing unless we find a way to get all of our eggs out of this one basket that we call Earth. "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever."-- Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky

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  1. This is a great post. I agree we shouldnt be completely dismissing space travel/exploration until mankind is "ready" mankind will never be fully ready and if we dont keep pushing ourselves in mutiple realms including space we wont move forward. Many advances we have today are because of humanity's desire and more towards space travel. I think we have shot ourselves in the foot by retiring the shuttle with no replacement it could be years before we are back in space by our own hand. I hope we can return to space travel soon, there is so much humanity can still learn from it.

  2. I appreciate the thoroughness with which you explored this issue, David! I, too, see so many benefits from manned space travel. Technology across-the-board benefits when our best scientific minds look at how mankind can survive in hostile environments. This is particularly relevant when the very planet on which we live is becoming less suited to survival for its billions of inhabitants. As you say, it's not a question of "if" but "when" humans must find another home, or face annihilation. I also agree that the outside perspective may be the perfect vantagepoint to solve some of the intractable issues. But perhaps the physical plane--even from outer space--is too close to the problem.

  3. One more thought--waiting until mankind is "ready" sounds suspiciously like waiting until you're "ready" to have a baby. You'll never have kids if you wait for all the conditions to be perfect, and I'm afraid the same logic applies here!

  4. Thank you. Here are some videos that even take my argument further--it is from a show that was done by the BBC with Sam Niel as a host.