Do We Belong Among the Stars?

For the last month or so, it has really sucked to watch the news. It started with the terrorist attack at a gay nightclub in my home town of Orlando, Florida, and it quickly devolved into mayhem and macabre behavior in Istanbul, Baghdad, Kabul, and elsewhere. Social turmoil roils abroad and at home, with the racial divide at its all-time worst level in years and law enforcement-related shootings and politicians of all stripes fanning the flames. At the same time, we have contentious elections and presidential candidates who don’t have the full confidence of the nation to solve the problems we face.

There have been worse times in human history, but there have also certainly been better, and right now we seem on one of those downhill slopes that does not bode well for peace or prosperity.

And while all this is going on, I’ve been contemplating human beings going into space. Not just to the International Space Station, our 16-year effort to engage in international engineering and science. No, I’m a space advocate by inclination, which means I spend some of my free time writing things to encourage policy makers or the general public to get behind the notion of going back to the Moon and on to other places in the solar system. Maybe even different solar systems eventually.

I can hear some of you now: For gosh sakes, why?!? Be realistic. Don’t we have more important things to worry about? Don’t we have better things we could spend our money on?

Maybe. And then again, maybe not. Space advocacy—all geekiness aside—has lofty goals for humanity:

  • Improve our technologies out in space and, by extension, here on Earth.
  • Expand and improve Civilization.
  • Ensure that humanity survives somewhere in case there’s some sort of massive war or other disaster here on Earth.

Our imperfect species

And yet the question must be asked: are we capable of putting aside substantive and petty differences to unite for the purpose of expanding out of this world? Some of my more cynical friends would even ask, should we?

I won’t deny that there is more than a helping of utopian optimism in the space advocacy community. Some of it is born out of the Star Trek vision of a positive future, some of it born out of perhaps-unrealistic expectations about how space settlement will affect us as human beings. We tend to accept only our best and brightest into the astronaut corps, and the Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans set high standards for their space voyagers as well. And yet we’ve had astronauts who cheated on their wives, one astronaut who drove cross-country in pursuit of a romantic rival, and another former astronaut charged with killing two kids in a drunk driving accident.

Astronauts are people, too. They’re not mass murderers, to be certain, but neither are they immune to the frailties of our species—rage, lust, pride—pick your deadly sin. For as much as the late Gene Roddenberry and others might believe that we will improve as a race, I’m not so certain.

And yet…

Despite all my misgivings, I still get angry with people who suggest that humanity is so far gone, that we have done such awful things to ourselves and the Earth, that we should stay here so as not to contaminate the rest of the universe. I consider that, to put it mildly, balderdash. For all our hubris and evil—and heaven knows there’s plenty of both to go around—I’m not convinced we’re that far gone.

Human beings are also capable of great ingenuity when it comes to solving problems. The tech blogs I read regularly identify new technologies for or from space that can solve many of the environmental challenges we face here on Mother Earth. Some of them are at a technology readiness level (TRL in NASA-speak) of one—meaning only theoretical. Others are in testing. Some are operational—level 9.

There have been, are, and will be lessons learned space that can help make life better here. That’s been proven many times. The effort to investigate and explore other worlds continues to pay dividends and will do so as long as we continue the effort.

But should human beings establish permanent settlements on the Moon, on Mars, or on stations flying above our heads in orbit? To borrow from one of our more popular space operas, when Luke Skywalker asked his mentor Yoda “What’s in there?” The little green oven mitt replied, “Only what you take with you.” So will it be when we send people to other worlds to be permanent residents.

We will have capitalism and communism and socialism. We will have greed and lust and rage. We will have politics and regionalism and struggles for power. We will have religious practices, both sublime and sinister. We will have love and generosity and kindness and heroism. We will have families and strong communities and people we admire. We will take all that we are and move it into the harshest environments imaginable because we seek glory or power or wealth or military advantage or freedoms or ways to fix the environment on Earth. We will take all these things with us because that is who we are.

What is it all about?

We have international treaties and statements of intent to prevent specific types of conflict from happening. We have banned weaponry in space, though we continue to develop space weaponry. And even Star Trek, optimistic as it has been, uses phasers and photon torpedoes.

Some would prefer that we establish only a small set of justifications for going into the space frontier, but until space is opened up to multiple interests, we will most likely not go. (And for those who think we are irredeemable as a species, that would probably be just fine.)

We’ve had great plans to explore the ocean floors or polar regions, yet those places remain nearly empty and they’re easier to work with than the Moon or Mars. “Science” is not enough of a motivator to build in those places and so we don’t—such was the intent.

So should we extend human civilization to other worlds? A similar question to ask might be, “Should you and your spouse have a child? If so, why?” The bottom line is that we have children to perpetuate ourselves. We do so out of love for our partners or hope for the future. Mind you, I don’t have a spouse or children, but I see that as a reflection on my limitations as a potential spouse or parent, not because I think marriage or children are bad things.

I believe we’re capable of doing good—enough good in the future to warrant staying around and making more of ourselves. In similar fashion, I believe that we will and should one day spread out into the solar system. No, it will not be Utopia. But we can try to make things better than we’ve had them, one person or instance at a time, just as we keep trying here on Earth.

That’s still worth doing, regardless of how the headlines read

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