By Brian Clegg
In the twenty-first century, being a pioneer may seem entirely alien. The closest we get to pioneering may be choosing different ingredients for dinner or watching that edgy new show. Yet the urge to boldly go where no one has gone before is a fundamental part of the human spirit however much it has become a cliche, and however watered down it may become.
In history, many of those people who ventured out across the world were looking for riches or territory to claim. Others simply wanted to be the first to a new location – or to expand the sum of human knowledge. Yet they have all shared an inability to stick with the status quo. They all had a very human urge to push the boundaries. And what greater frontier to open up than the very limits of the Earth?
The clear difference between spreading out across space and a historical frontier is the horrendous overhead of breaking out of the prison formed by our home planet’s gravity well. At the moment, this is an incredibly expensive business. According to NASA it costs around $10,000 to get a pound of material into space. That’s around $1,800,000 per person without the far greater weight of all the support equipment and resources necessary to keep that person alive. It may have been hard and dangerous to become a prospector in the American West in the nineteenth century, but you didn’t need to be a multi-millionaire to do it.
One of the prime movers in getting pioneers out to explore and tame this final frontier is going to be finding ways to reduce the cost of space travel. This is both about finding new technologies to get us away from the Earth but also about thinking laterally and realizing that not everything involved in a mission has to come from Earth in the first place, making use of resources that are already out there.
The reasons for getting to the new frontier remain the same as they ever were. Politics, for instance, is a very significant driver. As Chinese activity in space builds, it may be that once again the US government will feel the need to flex its muscles and make it clear who has the technological supremacy – and in principle also who has a military foothold in locations where gravity alone has the potential to turn a lump of rock into a more powerful weapon than a nuclear bomb. If the price is right, we will see all the traditional drivers for pioneering, coming into play. But there is a danger that the decision of whether or not to explore the solar system and beyond will be decided by a head versus heart debate. This is unnecessary and harmful.
Head versus heart
The debate is typified by the views of Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg and astronomer turned science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Weinberg, the “head” in the debate, points out the way that a major science project, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), was abandoned because funds were diverted to the International Space Station (ISS). The SSC would have been significantly more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and would have achieved results a good ten years earlier, argues Weinberg. This would have been a major step in fundamental science research.
By comparison, the ISS has cost the US government ten times as much as the SSC would have done and has yielded little of scientific value. All the useful space science, Weinberg points out, has come from unmanned satellites. “In the days of the cold war,” Weinberg commented, “perhaps it really was important to America to be the first country to put a man on the Moon and not let it be Russia, but today I think that really is irrelevant.”
Tyson, meanwhile, the “heart” in the debate, argues passionately for the manned exploration of space. Tyson points out that manned missions are essential to raise interest in the public – and without that interest, funding fails to follow. When dollars are hard to come by, the public can easily say, “Why should we waste our tax on obscure scientific research?” In essence, Tyson argues for a human presence in space as a PR exercise, emphasizing that the human exploration of space is inevitably a matter of national pride.
In reality, both Weinberg and Tyson are right, but each only sees a small part of the picture. The driving force behind their different positions is setting effective priorities for the science budget. But this will inevitably be bad for space exploration. There is no doubt that Weinberg is right in terms of science spending. There are far more bangs per buck to be had from unmanned space expeditions, or from Earth-bound science than can be gained from manned missions. It is pretty well always impossible to justify the risk and cost of putting humans into space for scientific purposes.
What is space exploration for?
However, there is something else, something bigger, that comes through in Tyson’s passion. Going into space is not really a scientific endeavor at all. It may be any or all of political, commercial, sociological – even spiritual – but it really isn’t too much about science. We need to separate our thinking here. Space exploration is far closer to defense spending than science – it is about doing something that is at the heart of keeping our civilization safe. By making it thriving and fresh.
I personally underwent a total change of view in writing my book, Final Frontier. When I began it, I subscribed to the Weinberg stance that putting humans in space capsules was idiotic, because that huge wasted budget could be given over to science. With a few exceptions, like the Shuttle mission that fixed the problems with the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror, humans have contributed a negligible amount of the scientific value of space exploration to date. But, much though I love science, I have come to realize that space exploration is a very different beast. Scientists inevitably overvalue the scientific component of any activity, but there is more to life – and in the case of manned space exploration, there is more to making life worth living.
Opening up the new frontier, exploring space, is a fundamental requirement for the future if we are not to see humanity settle into an asset-poor senescence, with fewer and fewer resources and no drive or energy. If we want the human race to thrive and grow, we need to be reaching out. In the long term, exploring space means making missions international – but it does not mean that the US (or Europe, or China…) lacks a huge role to play, nor does it prevent space exploration being a goal that can unite a nation and give it a new drive and hope in the triumphs of its astronauts within the framework of an international program. We also have to recognize that any permanent ventures into space are likely to produce colonies that see themselves not as American, but as Martian (or whatever the destination happens to be). There’s a shining example in the United States of America itself. What started as a British colony became a much greater entity with independence, and we are likely to see the same with colonies in space.
From national to human pride
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, American politics was driven by a perceived duty, sometimes called “Manifest Destiny,” to expand occupation of the continent from coast to coast and some will inevitably see the expansion into space as something that calls up a similar patriotic fervor. But the exploration of space will only succeed if we can embrace the reality of a human destiny. The space frontier is one for pride in humanity, not in narrow nationalism.
Space exploration may not be driven by science, but it can learn from it. Big science is already largely an international venture. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is a great example of the sort of international cooperation that is likely to be involved in large scale space missions, whether to form colonies or to venture to the stars. This doesn’t mean we stop being proud of who we are as a nation – just that we become increasingly proud of our achievements as humans, as inhabitants of the Earth.
It is easy to mock the famous words of Gene Rodenberry, which were, after all, simply part of the title sequence of a low budget TV show – and yet he got so much right. Anyone of my generation who has any soul can’t fail to feel their heart race a little when they hear those famous words spoken aloud. It only takes a slight modification to give us the truth of where we need to be.
Space: the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the people of Earth. Our ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.