/ Michael Franti / 10 am Mon, Nov 3 2014
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  • Why we must explore space

    Why we must explore space

    Michael Franti on why we must not give up on the final frontier.

    With so many problems raging on earth, why should governments or private enterprises like Virgin Galactic spend the time, energy and money on space exploration?

    As a child I dreamed of being an astronaut and I've always been fascinated by films and television shows about space travel and science. I grew up acting out Star Wars and Star Trek, and watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Neil deGrasse Tyson's updated version of the series, produced by Seth MacFarlane, is even more enthralling.

    I was especially fascinated by the work of Buckminster Fuller. Bucky Fuller was nearly completely blind, but using his keen sense of touch, he was able to build the dodecahedron--a nearly-spherical object--able to hold the most volume using the least material possible. Any geodesic dome-shaped home or building you see uses his principles. But Bucky's greatest work to me, was his concept of "Spaceship Earth": The idea that our planet is a vessel we are traveling on through space.

    Like a ship at sea, we have a finite amount of resources. Without working together, caring for one another and the planet, our ship will suffer and perish. His lifetime of science, like that of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, led him to the conclusion that human kind has a responsibility to care for one other and the planet.

    In 1946, a NASA satellite gave us the first scratchy black and white photo of one tiny segment of Earth from space, but it wasn't until 1967 that the world saw the first glorious photo of it as a big, beautiful sphere. Today we are all-too familiar with "Blue Marble" images of our home planet, but up until that time no one, in hundreds of thousands of years of human history, could envision the Earth's beauty. It has been said that what we find the most beautiful, we care for the most; images of Earth have inspired millions of people to care deeply for the health of our fragile sphere.

    People of my generation were children when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. To us, the crew's deaths were even harder to understand. So it was with a particular sadness that we see the news of the Virgin Galactic flight crash. All I could think of was the unbearable fear and pain that went through the minds of those aboard these vessels as they realized things were going terribly wrong--and the grief of the families and team members as they watched the astronauts give the ultimate sacrifice.

    I learned of the loss while watching television on a commercial flight. It brought to mind every film, show or book about test pilots who lost their lives on the way to making air travel available to the masses. As we hit a patch of turbulence, I gripped my chair suddenly; when the plane leveled, I was grateful for the science and the creativity and the lives that went into making my flight land safely.

    Over the weekend, astronauts spoke often of how risky they knew their missions were when they climbed into the cockpit. Fear raced through their minds, but the sense of purpose they had was incredibly. They knew that their work would lead to something beneficial for others.

    In any pioneering field, incredible risks are taken to achieve the greatest gains. Just as the fascination of flight inevitably led to air travel, so will the fascination of space lead to the inevitability of civilian space travel.

    I look forward to hearing what the NTSB investigation learns about the cause of the crash, but for today I want to pause and pray for the pilot who lost his life, for the other who is fighting for his. and for the families and loved ones who are living in so much pain at this moment.

    In the words of Elizabeth Kubler Ross:

    The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

    I hope that the pain of this tragedy will lead to a greater understanding of space, the beauty of our planet, the fragility of life, and the importance of us all working together in stewardship of Earth.

    / / 47 COMMENTS

    Notable Replies

    1. Glitch says:

      So essentially the argument here boils down to "Dreams! Inspiration! Desires!", making some sort of absurd suggestion that humanity cannot survive without pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams? That without some new physical frontier to push into (with the unspoken intention of exploiting the hell out of), we're all doomed?

      Space is huge, deadly, and empty. Even if we were to magically develop as-yet-completely-theoretical advanced propulsion systems, our nearest neighboring star would still take half a century to reach, each way. Remote communications, traveling at the speed of light, would still take nearly four and a half years, each way. Even if there were resources to exploit, we couldn't.

      Not only would nothing of physical value ever reach Earth from Alpha Centauri, no meaningful dialogue would ever occur due to the time lag. We might conceiveably receive one-way research data and observations packages, allowing us a small degree of interstellar paralax when examining the absurdly distant depths of space, but that assumes a permanent, successful, isolated, self-sustaining colony - the creation of which would be an utterly absurd undertaking and an investment of such massive scale as to be staggering, with a promise of very, very little return.

      Short of some miraculous FTL technology being developed, we and our descendants are never, ever going to have any meaningful ability to interact with the cosmos. Put away your absurd pop culture sci-fi misconcenptions of grand empires stretching across the stars - it simply isn't possible.

      And before anyone decries my lack of vision and spirit, I ask this - why does no one seem to have grand dreams of an earth-centric utopian future? Why do we romanticize trying to solve our problems by finding new frontiers to exploit, instead of romanticizing trying to solve our problems by finding peace and good sense among ourselves at home?

      People may cling to dreams of a grand space frontier if they must - but I for one would rather face the problems of earth in rational ways.

    2. And full of resources - metals, helium-3, solar energy.

      Assuming no cheat in physics. We know next to nothing about the nature of space-time. Claiming there is no way to curve the space sounds to me like claiming that rocks cannot fall from the sky because there are no rocks there.

      So somewhat similar to letters being sent over the world just few centuries ago. The claim also rests on the previous assumption of non-user-deformable space.

      There are enough resources already within our own solar system to make it worth the hassle. The first significant frontier is the gravity well of Earth; my bet here is on some variant of a space elevator. Which can be designed easier using asteroid-mined materials than moving all of it up from the mud down here.

      Again, cross-cultural meaningful dialogue occurred in ancient times when letters and scrolls took years to get from place to place. They did not have the internet back then. Realtime communication is a rather new development, even if it is easy to forget this.

      A test run is planned for Mars.

      ...for which the jury is still out and will be for quite some more time...

      Define "meaningful"? The solar system itself is big enough for a few generations of researchers. Meanwhile the physicists can work on the FTL magic.

      So many things weren't possible just few decades ago!

      Because of... people?

      Finding peace and good sense among ourselves... hmm... the stars are a better bet.

      The meek shall inherit the Earth. You can have, or at least fight for, my stuff once I am gone for the stars.

      You will also have a wide palette of technologies, crumbles for the space frontier feast, for your use in tackling said problems.

    3. How's that personal computer working for you? Or your digital watch and cell phone? They were developed for the space program. Not to mention GPS, infrared cameras, satellite TV, Teflon, ultrasound, calculators, pace maker batteries, radiation blocking sunglasses, laser surgery...

      The economic benefits of space exploration are enormous. The space program spawns new industries, GENERATES JOBS, inspires kids to become scientists and engineers, GENERATES JOBS, keeps our technology cutting-edge, and oh yeah...GENERATES JOBS. And buddy, the space program is a whole lot cheaper than waging war or handing out corn and soybean subsidies.

      Let's put the "space exploration is a waste of money" canard to rest, please.

    4. You seem to be making 2 assumptions I can't get behind.

      First that tackling multiple such problems at once dilutes our ability as a civilization to tackle the others. Yes, as a species if we put our collective will into it we could solve war in half an hour, hunger in a few months, and crime (along with poverty) in a couple of years (barring crimes by the mentally ill). Education would take decades, environmental problems generations, the others who knows. But that is ideal-world speculation on my part. Out in reality, neither you nor I has a really good idea what it will take to fix those problems, time and other resource-wise. They may or may not even compete with space exploration for anything but money. And you know what? Human psychology being what it is, it is much much easier to get people (politicians included) to give a little money to each of a lot of causes than a lot to one cause. So shutting down space exploration probably would not result in any increase in funding to any of those other causes, it would get blown on the military or some such. Given that context, adding another cause to the list can make sense.

      Second, you are operating under the same short time horizon as the rest of humanity. War and hunger we really to need to do everything in our power, at each moment, to end. But I don't just want things to be good now, I want them to be good 10, 100, and 1,000 years from now, and in the latter case humans (or our descendants) may be very different physically and emotionally. Maybe, if we're smart, we'll modify ourselves to live for centuries, and with that to plan projects (government, private, whatever) that span much longer lifetimes. There is no law of physics that research has to return a profit in 5 years. Then an interplanetary civilization is eminently achievable, and interstellar will look like an extension of the same principle. The alternative, meekly accepting our eventual demise from one disaster or another, is unacceptable (to many humans). Maybe I'd feel different if the universe were teeming with other civilizations and keeping ourselves relatively confined meant promoting cosmic diversity, but we could only know that after a lot of exploring.

    5. I am always amazed at how angry people get at the notion of space travel and exploration. If you aren't into it then don't do it. It isn't hard.

      Personally, I get angry at the trillions spent on building and using weapons of war. I get angry at the entire notion of 'business class' flight as a tax deductible expense. I get angry at militarized police forces with tanks. I get really ticked at vast oil sands development.

      I could care less if a few billionaires spend their cash floating around in a spaceship for a bit.

      I am much more interested in the endeavours of Planetary Resources. A bona fide business endeavour with huge hurdles but a real chance of getting us out of this biosphere. Personally I hope they crash the local commodities market enough to make it viable/practicable to stop destroying our wilderness with strip mining etc.

      I doubt we will be visiting other stars in our lifetimes, but I would love to see some steps towards it. We don't need to send vast and wasteful colony ships - there are hundreds of other viable options if we accept that it will take a couple centuries to arrive anywhere.

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