I’ve been reading James Michner’s novel Space and it’s left me wondering about the future of human space exploration – at least during the remaining decades of my expected lifespan.

The novel is a fictional telling of the history of space flight from the V2 rockets at the end of WWII to the landings on the moon and the launch of the space shuttle. It follows a series of fictional characters, scientists, engineers, test pilots, and their wives through the decades as the United States space program waxed and waned in influence and accomplishment.

To supplement the novel and help discern the fiction from the history (Apollo 18?) I’ve also been reading DK Publishing’s Space Flight. It’s a wonderful illustrated history of space flight from Robert Goddard to the International Space Station. It’s a great book. If you’re a space geek (or you know one) you should get a copy.

All of this reading about space travel got me to thinking about the future of human space exploration – what the status of it is now and what it will likely be the next few decades. The more I thought about it the more depressed I became.

I grew up after the Apollo missions had been cancelled and the Space Shuttle was being built. I was only nine years old when I bought issue #2 of Future Life Magazine, the cover illustration of the Space Shuttle firing my young imagination with daydreams of space walks and new missions to the moon. For the next few years, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Of course, while there were plenty of space walks in the following decades, there was no return to the moon. And no human led mission to mars. Our biggest accomplishments in space were to be the Hubble Telescope, the International Space Station, and the Mars Rovers. There were plenty of great science projects among the planets, like the Galileo probe, but humans stayed close to home while the robots got to have all the fun.

There are good arguments for robots leading the way for space exploration. They cost less. No human lives are risked. They can operate for years. The science they can do and report is wide ranging enough to make a human presence seemingly superfluous. But, one must also admit, and I say this as a diehard robot space enthusiast, they are a little dull. Even Voyager leaving the solar system was noticed mostly by space geeks. No celebrations or parades for humanities first step into interstellar space.

You need people involved to truly capture people’s imaginations. Why is capturing people’s imaginations important? Because if you can capture a child’s imagination about the possibilities of exploring space, they may grow up to be the scientists, engineers, and astronauts that do the exploring (or at least write science fiction about the exploring).

Today, with the Russians ferrying our astronauts to the ISS using 30 year old Soyuz technology, and our own launch capability several years away (Orion where are you?), I suspect our ability to inspire the next generation of space explorers is at a new low.

I know, the Space-X launch and the Space Ship One flight are both inspirational. It’s great to see private space ventures that can succeed. However, real inspiration usually requires big events, or at least striving for big events. Why else would China make it a goal to place a Chinese citizen on the moon by 2030 if not to inspire their people? Yes, it’s been done before, but not for 40+ years and doing so will signal that China is a new superpower, able to accomplish what only one other nation ever has. The US, unfortunately, isn’t trying to inspire anyone these days.

The reasons humans, and the nations they created, pursue space exploration are not the same as those that drove exploration of our world. We used to explore to find new land for living and new resources to exploit. We also explored to meet new people, to trade with, conquer, or enslave. And, we explored to learn more about the world, to make better maps – which would help us exploit and conquer. We also explored because it’s part of our human nature to look around the next corner and see what we find.

Space exploration is different. We don’t yet have the technology to put large numbers of people into space for colonization. Nor do we yet have the technology to seek out new resources to exploit from space (although some folks are thinking ahead to asteroid mining). If by chance we do meet new people, they’re more likely to enslave us, so that leaves exploring for science, to know more about the universe and our place in it, and exploring for the sheer thrill of the adventure, and the vicarious adventure that rest of humanity receives from that exploration. These two motivations, science and adventure, got us to the moon — with the help of thinly veiled military competition between rival super power nations. However, it’s been mostly the science that has kept us in space since. Of course, the military advantages that come from having relatively easy access to near earth orbit have helped as well.

Unfortunately, there is no military reason to put people on the moon again, or send them to mars or anywhere else, so scientists continue to try and come up with good reasons for having humans on a space station. It’s relatively easy to find money for a new weapon system or to invade, occupy, and rebuild a country that poses no military threat, but getting funds for a human mars mission is likely impossible.

The US seems unlikely to devote the resources to a mars mission, much less a return to the moon, so I suspect we will hover in earth orbit for at least a couple of decades until one of two possibilities arises. The first is that China, the only country that could foreseeably afford to mount a mars mission, chooses to do so to inspire it’s people and proclaim itself the most powerful nation in the world (whether not that is true militarily won’t matter as much for China in the future – as long as the US keeps spending the $$ to remain the world’s police force).

The other scenario, which I’m hopeful but not optimistic about, would be a combined effort of the world’s major nations with the mars mission acting as a symbol of international goodwill and unity. Yeah, I know, I’m a dreamer.

My hopes for the wildly adventurous human exploration of space seem unlikely to be realized in my lifetime. Unfortunately, it’s possible that our robotic based scientific exploration of space may also suffer a slowdown, at least as far as the United States is concerned.

One of the interesting subplots in Mitchner’s Space involved a charlatan who first cons people out of their money by spinning stories of UFOs and little green men and later cons people out of their money by assuming the mantle of a fundamentalist preacher railing against evolution and the scientists trying to use space satellites to discern the origins of the universe.  Space was published in 1982 and it was both descriptive of the times and prophetic of the future.

Science and the pursuit of knowledge are struggling against anti-science perspectives from both the cultural far right, where those with traditional worldviews rigidly holding onto a mythical interpretation of the world, and from the cultural far left, where postmodern worldviews embrace bad mysticism and magical thinking in hopes of transcending Newtonian and Cartesian perspectives. Many on the cultural far right want to believe the universe is only 5000 years old, while many on the cultural far left want to believe there is some “secret law” that really guides the universe (and will help them get all their hearts desire). Both views are crushing to science.

If we collectively continue to promote the idea that evolution is a hoax by atheists to undermine the will of the Christian God, or that global warming and climate change are hoaxes created liberal scientists greedy for grant money, we’ll be unlikely to continue to fund the science, and especially space science, that examines the origins of the universe and charts the changes of the global climate system. We will fall behind in science and in space exploration. At least as a nation.

It’s sad to think it, but it is possible that the future of space exploration, both in terms of science and adventure, will rest in the hands of the Chinese. If you’re a young kid dreaming of being an astronaut, you might want to learn Mandarin and Cantonese along with calculus and physics.

Of course, the Chinese might decide to follow the historical precedent of the Ming Dynasty and abandon outward exploration (see also David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series).

This link above is to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson delivering testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. It’s worth listening to his words. They give me hope. Here’s a great quote. You can read his testimony here.

 “Exploration of the unknown might not strike everyone as a priority. Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-states—to change assumptions of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions. They energize the electorate. During the Apollo era, you didn’t need government programs to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country. It was self-evident. And even those not formally trained in technical fields embraced what those fields meant for the collective national future.”

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