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Apollo 11
Apollo was carried out for geopolitical reasons, not for enlightened exploration; similar alternatives to exploration are needed to justify spaceflight today. (credit: NASA)

Are we driven to explore?

Sunday, July 20th, was the thirty-ninth anniversary of the first human footsteps on another world. It was true space exploration, and in the five successful flights that followed Apollo 11, we learned a great deal about the nearby orb that had played such a key role in our development, as life and a species. Unfortunately, the real reason that we did so was not for exploration, but to win a game of technological one-upsmanship with the Soviets, our primary adversary in the Cold War. And so, once we had beaten them there, we retreated back to Earth orbit for the next four decades, with no current plans to return for at least another one.

Was this natural? In turning our back on the Moon almost thirty-six years ago, after the flight of Apollo 17, were we denying our nature, our fundamental human urge to explore? Many in the space community have thought so, but there is some recent evidence that curiosity is not as dominant a human trait as we might like to believe. Or, if it was at one time, it may no longer be evolutionarily advantageous. It seems that those who want to see what’s over the next mountain have an attention-deficit disorder:

One hypothesis is that the behaviour associated with ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder] helps people, such as hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads, who lead a peripatetic life. Since today’s sedentary city dwellers are recently descended from such people, natural selection may not have had time to purge the genes that cause it.

In other words, while it was useful to be unable to settle down in the past, when you have to continuously scan the horizon looking for game, or seek out a new valley that may have herds in it, it doesn’t work out so well in a modern industrial society, particularly in the constraining environment of an all-day classroom. That squirmy disruptive kid who we’re putting on Ritalin today might be tomorrow’s Neil Armstrong. At least, that is, if we don’t overmedicate or “feminize” him to the point that he can’t get the education and experience he needs to be a space explorer.

That squirmy disruptive kid who we’re putting on Ritalin today might be tomorrow’s Neil Armstrong.

But despite the fervent wishes and hopes of many space enthusiasts, he’s a distinct minority, which is one of the reasons that support for space and NASA budgets is a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s just not that fundamentally important to most people, and certainly not a voting issue unless you happen to live in a community that gets federal space dollars, and often not even then. The only election on record in which space was a major campaign issue was Apollo 17 Moon walker Harrison Schmitt’s, running for reelection as Senator from New Mexico in 1982. His opponent’s slogan was “What on earth has Jack Schmitt done for us?” The space explorer lost.

It certainly seems empirically obvious that most people have little interest in exploring. While this has been changing somewhat as technology and transportation has advanced, the vast majority of the world’s human inhabitants still live their entire lives within a few miles of the place that they were born, though they could certainly walk to other places had they the urge. The space enthusiasts’ error (a common one) is in falsely projecting their own interests on to humanity at large.

So maybe, if we want to sell space, we need to come up with a different rationale than to “go where no man has gone before,” boldly or otherwise, because most people don’t even want to go the store for beer if someone else will do it for them. They’re particularly uninterested in participating vicariously in the exploration of others, if it is perceived to cost them a lot of money. And that’s OK, because if everybody was out exploring, there wouldn’t be much work getting done, and there would be no societal wealth to support the few who do want to explore.

Yet space activists persist with this flawed sales pitch, to the point that when the president announced a new space policy exactly four and a half years ago, he called it a Vision for Space Exploration.

“But wait!” I hear anguished readers cry. “Doesn’t this mean that there’s no market for personal space travel, which you’ve been telling us for years is the market that will bring down the costs of spaceflight?”

If one examines human history, there are two prime motivators—fear and greed. The Apollo program was driven by fear, but once we went to the Moon, the fear was over, and so was the program.

Not at all. In a world of billions of people, even if you take the intersection of the small set of people who are adventurous, and the small set of people who have the money to take such trips, it’s still a pretty darned big market. Adventure travel is going gangbusters (though it will obviously be curtailed by high transportation costs resulting from current overinflated energy prices). And while people aren’t necessarily into exploration per se, they are into new experiences. And what could be a newer experience than being flung up into space at high gees, then serenely viewing the beauty of the earth from orbit while floating weightless? That’s not exploration—it’s aesthetics. It’s entertainment. Millions go to Vegas every year, but few if any consider it “exploring.” Virgin Galactic doesn’t have millions in deposits for nothing.

In any event, fortunately, there are in fact a number of other reasons to develop space capabilities, and for many of them, exploration is an important means. The mistake is in making it an end in itself.

If one examines human history, there are two prime motivators—fear and greed. The Apollo program was driven by fear, but once we went to the Moon, the fear was over, and so was the program. But let us examine some other potential benefits of space exploration that can feed off these primal emotions (not to mention that they are also rational reasons to open up that frontier).

Let us start with fear, since it was what got us started in the space business.

We are under a constant, but little understood threat from getting hit by a rock from space. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have an infrastructure in place to prevent that from happening? If the Tunguska event, only a century ago, had occurred over New York, I think that twentieth century history would have been very different…

At this point, our military is almost completely dependent on space assets for effectiveness, not only in targeting to hit the bad guys and miss the good guys, but in terms of communications. There is also a possibility that energy from space could be a vital tool in the field. That’s something worth thinking about.

Suppose that the folks who want to shout out our presence to the universe get a response? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to respond in kind, if it were hostile?

And considering that there are threats to humanity closer to home, both natural and man-made, and that these will increase in the future as technology advances, it might be a good idea to get some of our eggs out of the single basket in which they are currently contained.

But let us move on from the downer (though important) reasons to be spacefaring to the greedy (and much more fun) ones.

The vast amount of resources in the universe resides off the planet. For example, there are single asteroids that contain a trillion dollars worth (at current market rates—no doubt retrieving that amount would depress prices considerably, not a bad thing) of platinum-group metals, used for fuel cells and other new energy applications. The same technologies that can divert errant asteroids might also allow us to retrieve and mine them.

Sunlight can be collected continuously in orbit 24/7, and there may be prospects for using it not only off the planet, but sending it down here as well. In general, opening up new natural resources means vastly increasing planetary (and solar system) wealth.

We will need not a vision for space “exploration,” but rather, a vision for space settlement, for space development, a vision for expanding humanity into space, with all the potential, for good or ill, that that implies.

But the biggest benefit may be the opportunity to continue to improve our social and political lives. A couple of centuries ago, people whose ancestors had fled Europe (though mostly Britain, at the time) to seek religious and political freedom founded a new republic, which turned out to be one that saved the world from totalitarianism in the twentieth century, and almost forty years ago landed a man on the Moon, and claimed it not in the name of that nation, but in the name of all mankind. Without a new laboratory in a new world, could such a bastion of freedom and uplifting of material wealth, not just for the few, but for most, have been nurtured in Europe? European history over that period does not render one sanguine about such a notion.

May freedom continue to reign, and the world continue to advance in that regard, but in the event (not at all unlikely) that the global politics will deteriorate to recreate the conditions against which the Founders rebelled, it might be nice to have a new petri dish, off planet. One in which we can continue to advance the ideals of Locke, Burke, Smith and others, and escape the romantic and misguided ideals of Rousseau about the perfectability of man, rather than his institutions, that resulted in the brutal deaths of tens of millions over the past decades. As America did in the eighteenth century, space in the future will provide an equivalent such laboratory, if only we can follow up on the frail beginning of four decades ago. But to do that we will need not a vision for space “exploration,” but rather, a vision for space settlement, for space development, a vision for expanding humanity into space, with all the potential, for good or ill, that that implies.


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