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Putting modern-day dressing on old arguments for exploration may not be the most effective way to advocate for a human presence in space.

Cargo cult exploration


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As the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Spaceflight, mandated by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, begins its task to establish the goals and value proposition for humans in space, it’s a good time to consider rationale in some detail. As pointed out by myself and University of Hartford exploration historian Michael Robinson (Space Policy 25, 236, 2009, and a Space News op-ed) several years ago, “exploration” is a highly malleable and somewhat ill-defined word that human spaceflight advocates tend to hide behind. The rationale for human spaceflight is self-evident, we are told, from the rich history of terrestrial exploration: the likes of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, for example. So the rationale for human spaceflight becomes entangled with a decidedly historical model for exploration. That’s a model that assumed, for very good reasons at the time, that learning about a place and even exercising control there depended on sending people. But our technology has carried us far beyond that model, such that the space exploration we’ve actually done, at sites well beyond the Moon, has been without people being physically present at those locations. We can now send some degree of human cognition and presence to our priority destinations without actually sending humans. Lewis and Clark couldn’t do that to theirs. Our military drone pilots now exercise perception and control remotely at their destinations in a way that historical assault forces could not.

The rationale for human spaceflight is self-evident, we are told, from the rich history of terrestrial exploration. But our technology has carried us far beyond that model.

The failure that comes from applying the historical model for exploration to human spaceflight is a bit sinister. Exploration is always considered an admirable pursuit: reaching beyond the next hill, and expanding consciousness about places never witnessed. But we can fall victim to a psychological trap. It’s one that reassures us about a pursuit when what we do follows the apparent precepts and historical forms of that pursuit, instead of seeking quantifiable sought-after results or even just organized outreach for serendipity. This brings up what I call cargo cult exploration.

The cargo cult practice is well known to anthropologists. It is one that has been seen in primitive cultures after their exposure to more advanced ones. The primitive culture tries to emulate the more advanced culture by mimicking behavior that is, at best, only loosely connected to what made the advanced culture so advanced. Cargo cult activity was well established in the South Pacific during the Second World War when technically primitive tribes in Melanesia and Micronesia were exposed to Japanese and Allied military occupiers. The lifestyle of those primitive islanders changed dramatically as a vast quantity of wonderful materiel like medicine, iceboxes, and Coca-Cola was either dropped on or airlifted to their islands. While the natives dearly prized this materiel, the providers rarely offered any deep insights about where it came from. At the end of the war, the materiel stopped coming. The occupiers left. The primitive islanders were disappointed and confused. In what has been termed “sympathetic magic,” the desperate tribes offered iconic rituals to bring the materiel back. They would lay out flat, straight roadways and light them with torches to attract the long-lost airplanes. They would carve headphones from wood, and wave signal flags toward the empty sky. It worked before, they figured.

The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was a Nobel laureate as a result of his epochal work on quantum electrodynamics and one of the best-known scientists of the middle of the last century. He was also an acclaimed popularizer of physics, with a keen sense of science education and methodology. Feynman gave a famous commencement address at Caltech in 1974 (see his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and on the web) in which he cautioned graduates about what he called “cargo cult science.” This was about doing science in a way that included all the trappings of scholarship and research, with experiments, logbooks, and reports, but without the integrity that helped one judge if the effort was correct. This integrity required honest critical questioning of results, understanding of potential theoretical flaws, and skepticism about the true nature of experimental tasks. As Feynman noted, gesturing to the South Sea tribes, “They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.”

I refer to cargo cults in the context of human space exploration because a dependence on the historical model for exploration should not distract us from our real goals in space. Those real goals are presumably not just to duplicate, in space, the historical model for exploration. In trying to make space exploration correspond to that historical model, we might not be envisioning it in the most opportune way. Certainly it’s not about a primitive culture emulating a more sophisticated one. But it is about a technically adept and curious culture emulating decidedly adventurous ones, whose efforts symbolize to us the expeditionary spirit we’ve been taught to revere. We really want to look like them.

It goes without saying that if Thomas Jefferson had earth resources satellites, his Corps of Discovery might never have been constituted.

As noted above, our newly found technological sophistication has allowed us to transcend the historical model for exploration in which learning about and exercising control at distant venues required that we put footprints there. That sophistication now allows us to put some of our human cognition and presence at these distant places without putting our bodies there. That was the idea with Curiosity on Mars, as well as with Voyager at the outer reaches of our solar system. These modes of exploration don’t look like the celebrated historical modes, which were with ships, personal danger, and footprints, as well as satisfying an almost masculine hubris. We shouldn’t need those totems to reassure us that we’re really exploring.

The idea that samples from Mars need humans to bring them back can be termed Darwinian. The lengthy voyage of scientific discovery of the Beagle is in many respects a historical template for a scientific voyage to Mars in a space-qualified ship for humans. That a pair of sharp eyes and dexterous hands on site is needed to select samples is now becoming as much about the capabilities of a telerobotic surrogate, and certainly communication latency, as it is an argument for humans to set foot on the surface. The idea that NEOs should be inspected in situ by brave astronauts to assess their threat and perhaps their resource potential recalls the trials of Lewis and Clark, who were tasked by Thomas Jefferson to bravely assess the Louisiana Purchase and the lands beyond by tramping through them.

It goes without saying that if Thomas Jefferson had earth resources satellites, his Corps of Discovery might never have been constituted. The idea that humans need to be on the Moon to extract resources there recalls past gold and diamond rushes, where humans transplanted themselves and their families in order to pull riches from the ground. Modern telerobotic mining and high dexterity telerobotic manipulation would give pause to such pioneers. In summary, if we see space exploration as being just about human voyages, personal danger, and footprints, because historical exploration was about human voyages, personal danger, and footprints, we do ourselves a grave disservice.

This isn’t to say that human spaceflight can’t be relevant to national priorities. The technical sophistication that we’ve gained in the last few decades, however, in putting human cognition and control where we would otherwise have to do it by sending human flesh, does make human spaceflight somewhat less important than it used to be. But we need to be very honest with ourselves about what we want, before we brand human spaceflight, which we simplistically call human space exploration, as the way to get it.

Human spaceflight has value. Can we be honest with ourselves about what that value is?

To the extent that our goal is the expansion of humanity into the cosmos, reaching toward colonization and settlement, sending humans into space has to be what it’s all about. That’s a great deal more than just expanding permanent human presence beyond LEO, which is the current congressional mandate. To the extent that our goal is to assert bravery and technological superiority to other nations, and to excite our public, human spaceflight is a pretty good way to do it. To the extent that we need to minimize communication latency in establishing high-quality human cognition telerobotically at distant sites, human spaceflight, at least to get people close by, is essential. To the extent that space property rights and territorial claims might require humans on site, so be it. It may be that these goals are what we’re really after when we call for “human space exploration.” If that’s the case, then those goals ought to be explicit. They aren’t now. In all of these goals, if our federal space agency is to be charged with doing them on the taxpayer dime, then it should be established by consensus and federal legislation that these goals are indeed national priorities. If Elon Musk wants to spend his own money on them, no such questions need be asked.

But the idea that human spaceflight is important because important explorers have always gone places to emplace their flesh in order to emplace their awareness and power is pretty simplistic. It’s cargo cult exploration. We do a lot of what should be called human space exploration right now, putting extensions of human eyes, and to some extent human hands, on other worlds. We do this without putting humans on rockets. Many of these human explorers are sitting in office chairs in Pasadena, driving rovers on Mars and watching over missions at the far reaches of the solar system. In the future, we may find that astronauts safely aboard a habitat orbiting an exploration site deep in a dangerous gravity well are needed to achieve virtual presence there, operating sophisticated electromechanical surrogates on the surface in near real-time.

Let us hope, as we work out the goals and value proposition for human spaceflight, that we won’t fall back on “exploration” as a rationale, without considering what we really mean by that word. Human spaceflight has value. Can we be honest with ourselves about what that value is? Cargo cult exploration is about believing that exploration has to look like what it used to look like, and not necessarily about doing exploration in ways that now make sense. It’s a matter of integrity. We have to do better than that, if we want to make the airplanes land.


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