Kate Bush, Hello Earth
I read the various eulogies, qualified and otherwise, on the occasion of the space shuttle’s retirement. Personally, I do not mourn the shuttle’s extinction, because it never came alive: not as engineering, not as science, not as a vision.
Originally conceived as a reusable vehicle that would lift and land on its own, the shuttle was crippled from the get-go. Instead of being an asset for space exploration, it became a liability – an expensive and meaningless one, at that. Its humiliating raison d’ être was to bob in low earth orbit, becoming a toy for millionaire tourists by giving them a few seconds of weightlessness. The space stations it serviced were harnessed into doing time-filling experiments that did not advance science one iota (with the notable exception of the Hubble), while most of their occupants’ time was spent scraping fungus off walls. It managed to kill more astronauts than the entire Apollo program. The expense of the shuttle launches crippled other worthwhile or promising NASA programs, and its timid, pious politics overshadowed any serious advances to crewed space missions.
In the past, I had lively discussions with Robert Zubrin about missions to Mars (and Hellenic mythology… during which I discovered that he, like me, loves the Minoans). We may have disagreed on approach and details, but on this he and I are in total agreement: NASA has long floated adrift, directionless and purposeless. Individual NASA subprograms (primarily all the robotic missions), carried on in the agency’s periphery, have been wildly successful. But the days when launches fired the imagination of future scientists are long gone.
It’s true that the Apollo missions were an expression of dominance, adjuncts to the cold war. It’s also true that sending a crewed mission to Mars is an incredibly hard undertaking. However, such an attempt — even if it fails — will address a multitude of issues: it will ask the tough question of how we can engineer sustainable self-enclosed systems (including the biological component, which NASA has swept under the rug as scientifically and politically thorny); it will allow us to definitively decide if Mars ever harbored life; it will once again give NASA – and the increasingly polarized US polity – a focus and a worthwhile purpose.
I’m familiar with all the counterarguments about space exploration in general and crewed missions in particular: these funds could be better used alleviating human misery on earth; private industry will eventually take up the slack; robotic missions are much more efficient; humans will never go into space in their current form, better if we wait for the inevitable uploading come the Singularity.
In reality, funds for space explorations are less than drops in the ocean of national spending and persistent social problems won’t be solved by such measly sums; private industry will never go past low orbit casinos (if that); as I explained elsewhere, we in our present form will never, ever get our brains/minds into silicon containers; and we will run out of resources long before such a technology is even on our event horizon, so waiting for gods… er, AI overlords won’t avail us.
Barring an unambiguous ETI signal, the deepest, best reason for crewed missions is not science. I recognize the dangers of using the term frontier, with all its colonialist, triumphalist baggage. Bravado aside, we will never conquer space. At best, we will traverse it like the Polynesians in their catamarans under the sea of stars. But space exploration — more specifically, a long-term crewed expedition to Mars with the express purpose to unequivocally answer the question of Martian life — will give a legitimate and worthy outlet to our ingenuity, our urge to explore and our desire for knowledge, which is not that high up in the hierarchy of needs nor the monopoly of elites. People know this in their very marrow – and have shown it by thronging around the transmissions of space missions that mattered.
It’s up to NASA to once again try rallying people around a vision that counts. Freed of the burden of the shuttle, perhaps it can do so, thereby undergoing a literal renaissance.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, September 1962
Images: Pat Rawlings, Beyond; Randy Halverson, Plains Milky Way; European Space Agency, High Aurora.