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Picard on Space Exploration

Frequent (and thoughtful) commentor DK sent me a link to this story recently:

The actor who plays the captain on TV's Star Trek has said he thinks resources spent on sending people into space should be used on "getting this place right first".

Patrick Stewart said Earth should be our focus rather than other planets.

"I'm a bit of a wet blanket when it comes to the whole business of space travel," he said in a BBC interview...

In an interview with BBC World Service radio, Stewart said he backed unmanned missions such as Nasa's Mars rover Opportunity and the UK's Beagle 2 mission.

But he said he did not believe the human race was ready to begin thinking about beaming down on other planets.

"As I get older my unease at the time and the money that has to be spent on projects putting human beings back to the moon, and on to another planet, is so enormous," he said.

"And it would take up so many resources, which I personally feel should be directed at our own planet."

Interviewed by the World Update programme, he added: "Humankind has just not simply become sufficiently evolved to now leave this planet, take itself out to space and began establishing more of us out there.

"I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilisations out on to other planets -- even though they may be utterly uninhabited."

When I read this, my first reaction was to think that Stewart was being narrow-minded and perhaps even a little hypocritical. But re-reading his words, I can't say that I materially disagree with his basic premise. It would be inspiring to see humans walking on Mars, but what would we learn about the planet that we couldn't learn through robotic exploration? Not much. And a manned mission to Mars would surely cost at least $100 billion, if not more -- money that would be taken away from unmanned space missions. We would end up knowing somewhat more about Mars and much, much less about the rest of the universe. That, to me, seems a poor trade-off.

In a perfect world, we would set foot on Mars. (Fears about our admittedly "flawed civilisations" could wait for a future day when we're capable of permanently colonizing the planet.) But in this imperfect world, if the choice is between, on one hand, footprints on Mars, and on the other, new space telescopes, a mission to Europa, a follow-on mission to Titan, missions to Neptune and Uranus, and many, many other advances in space science, I choose the science.


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Thanks, Frank, for posting this one. Other distractions have kept me from being as "frequent" lately. I hope to catch up soon.

Star Trek was a wonderful vehicle to capitalize on an increased interest in space, science, and incidentally science fiction at a time when the U.S. was doing active manned flight. It also became a dramatic hook on which the writers could hang stories centering on current social issues. As a dramatic effort, it still hangs together pretty well. As social commentary, it (and descendents) has had its moments on both extremes. As science, its pretty shaky. I like my scifi to be as much competent science as it is competent fiction, but I don't expect much from TV.

I cannot write as well as others on the subject, but I believe that what I think is Stewart's main premise is based on what may be a false assumption:

"Humankind has just not simply become sufficiently evolved to now leave this planet, take itself out to space and began establishing more of us out there"

This statement assumes that a species evolves before encountering an environmental change. The opposite is true. Until a species changes itself to meet and overcome an evolutionary challenge, it will not evolve. Depending on the nature of the challenge, it may even decline or become extinct.

Stewart's phrasing seems to point toward social development as evolution, but I submit that the same principle applies.

I could quote others on the serendipidous effects of advances in technology created for manned space flight on medical care, the environment, capital investment, and even the very means by which we are communicating. Too much information for someone else's blog! My own influences started with the non-scifi commentary of Heinlein, and include non-scifi essays by Niven and others. A quick google on the Heilein misquote I sent you via e-mail originally would lead one to a wealth of others (quoted more accurately here):

"Earth is too small and fragile a basket for humanity to keep all its eggs in."

Manned space travel is the next step. Robotic exploration is a necessary prerequisite, but not the main course. Fortunately, a few people with both imagination and cash (surprising how often those two don't go together) believe this. Hence, your X-prize example's purpose is to put three people into space, twice, not three PCs. J. F. Kennedy (cash and imagination there) refocused sprialing exclusively military exploration and technological development towards the real vision of the future. We've temporarily lost our nerve and keep taking baby steps. We need to stretch out. The sooner, the better.

We will not be "ready" to reach out, adapt to, and start living in our new environment until we have actually done it. Our efforts will require more sacrifices by many individuals, and success will not be cheap. The steps forward toward the next stage in our evolution are necessary for long-term survival.

I sense from your other postings, however, that your attitude may be influenced by the current political debates. I am almost positive on Stewart's political inclinations. I have my own leanings, as probably did Heinlein, but these things too shall pass. If "western civilisation" doesn't take the next step, another fish will grow legs. But personally, I'd rather be the first mammal than the last dinosaur!

In this day and age, politics of the pliestocene no longer matter. No one recorded if they thought it would cost too much. There's a lesson in there somewhere.


I think we agree more than we disagree. As I said, in my perfect world, we would send manned missions to Mars and other locations. But we in the US are already adding to our public debt at the rate of $500 billion per year. Not only can we not do everything, we can't even do all the things we're doing today. Something is going to have to give.

With that in mind, given a finite budget for NASA, would you rather have one manned mission to Mars or 100 unmanned missions to Earth orbit, the Moon, and the rest of the solar system? The cost would be about the same. Would you rather have the pride of seeing human footprints on Mars or the satisfaction of finding out whether Europa supports life in its below-ice oceans?

I think that we are pretty close, too, Frank, we only differ on some details. And if we continue to depend on NASA for everything, we will indeed be limited to one or two choices - the decision for which you and I will likely have little input. I would hate to make a choice between the two alernatives you outline, or between those two and maintaining/replacing the Hubble.

NASA continues to do good things, but at a decreasing rate of return.

I'll make a weasily choice -- I want manned landings on Europa. And I think that the only way to get there will be via commercial exploitation of space. And I think that the only way to get THERE will be to re-think how we "acquire" new space technology. In a country of prima-facia capitalists, our space capability is much too nationalized.

I'd start by using your suggestion of X-prize like awards for "small" capabilities. Simultaneously I would go to requests-for-proposal on major capabilities, with the contract awarded on a fly-off basis. For example, in about 5 years, I'd like to see Boeing and Lockheed each put up a 24-7 manned space station as a test, and let them be allowed to sell their technology to others after one of them wins the contract. We'd have to pick our projects so that the risks could be managable and the potential rewards to the major players would be high enough to make it worth the risk. Eventually, little government input would be required, since the exploitation of space resources would eventually make space profitable for the participants.

See the history of the communications industry, railroads, steamshipping, and airlines for historical precedent.

While NASA takes a hiatus on manned space (see refs http://www.popsci.com/popsci/aviation/article/0,12543,576889,00.html http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2004/01/langewiesche.htm), let them have the robotic probes to Io and Europa and Titan. And replace the Hubble (on contract). While the commercial guys are vying for the manned program and cheap re-launch capability, NASA can leverage their astronaut and ground-crew training and quality software capabilities as sub-contractors. NASA can continue to do the R&D and robotic exploration with a much smaller real operating budget, while being left as the contracting agency for all those RFPs. Immediate savings from grounding the shuttles can start the contract funding. The first capability to be contracted out would be a sustainable launch for International Space Station re-supply. Our commitments to ISS should be re-thought.

Mine (actually mostly borrowed from some of those people I referenced in my last post) is an unlikely scenario. As much as I want to see something like this, I doubt if it will happen. But I've just found out that I'm a Anthropoexpansionist ( see http://www.thespacereview.com/article/93/1) and I really believe that a more aggressive, Open Skies approach to manned space should be our future. It will be the only forward step.

Reality will be very close to what you propose, although with vision (and cash) it needn't be so. So I think that I'll probably have to choose robotic probes on Europa, and watch the Japanese and ESA (if they can get their heads out) develop commercial space with Russian Launch capability, and NASA commit to untenable shuttle programs.

Quite a long-winded way of answering your question.


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