Monday, October 04, 2004

Space and Why We Should Go There

Folks were talking about SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize today in one of the forums I regularly visit, and some one said, essentially, "That's all fine, but why do actual humans need to go into space at all?"

I think the short answer is: because we can.

I often hear people say that the money the government, and by extension, private enterprise puts into manned space exploration could be better spent on Earth or at least on vastly more productive unmanned missions.

There is no shortage of things here on Earth that need money more right now than space flight; there's no denying it. But I think that manned space flight is akin to basic science. A new polymer is just a new and relatively useless polymer until someone discovers it can be used for, say, contact lenses. Applied science always depends upon the basic science that precedes it.

Now, I realize that manned space flight is about the most applied and least basic science one can do. Still, I think that it shares a critical trait with basic science: you don't know what is really out there until you go there yourself, just like you don't really know what these two chemicals will do until you mix them. Our probes and telescopes can tell us many things about the universe far and near, but they cannot substitute for an inquisitive primate on the spot.

Until we have completely immersive telepresence systems and probes capable of doing everything that a human hand can or until we have probes with A.I.s with brains just as fast and imaginations just as sharp as ours, the most basic facts of what it's like for humans to go just around the corner, say to the Moon or Mars or even Europa, will be at best well funded speculation.

Why should humans want to know what it's like to be in space or to visit another planet at all? In part because the only other endeavor humans regularly undertake that has produced as many breakthroughs in materials science, applied mathematics, computer technology or extreme human physiology would be war.

Also, sooner or later (and admittedly, possibly very much later) some of us at least will need to leave this planet. May as well get in the game early.

But most abstractly and I think most importantly, we need to go to space to inspire us here on Earth. Think of the early photographs of Earth from space, how before then no one had ever seen the whole planet without geopolitical lines or symbols standing in for real places and ecosystems. Think of the thrill of being able to do something so completely different, to go to a place - and come back - so alien that even a second's exposure to it would kill you. Think of making and using some of the most sophisticated and advanced technology to do something Just Because We Can. These things inspire us to do more here on Earth and even to see the world, sometimes literally, in a different way.

And, let's admit it: it's about the coolest thing you can do. Well, ok, the second coolest, at least until someone develops hydrogen powered sex toys.


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