If Space Is the Final Frontier, Why Aren’t We There Yet?

Occupy MarsMost of the time when I wear my Occupy Mars t-shirt (available from Space X), I get a thumbs up from people I meet. But awhile back a woman took a look and said, “No, no. Don’t occupy Mars.”

She was just passing by, so I didn’t get a chance to ask her what her objection was. Did she think humans would mess up Mars? Or did she think exploring space was a luxury we can’t afford? I’d disagree either way, though I’d be willing to have a thoughtful conversation on whether we humans, with all our flaws, might be a destructive force in the rest of the universe.

But when it comes to the “we can’t afford it” argument, my response is “we can’t afford not to do it.”

I got to thinking about this reading Steven Popkes’s post last Sunday and visiting the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum over Thanksgiving. Just looking at the history of aviation — which went from the Wright Brothers to jet planes in about 40 years and now is so routine that most of us think nothing of flying across the country for a holiday weekend — is enough to get me started on what human beings are capable of inventing and discovering once they’re given half a chance.

Visiting the part of the museum devoted to the history of space exploration reminded me that I grew up with the US space program. What’s now called the Johnson Space Center was plunked down in a cow pasture about five miles from where I grew up. Our fledgling Episcopal Church in Friendswood got a boost from scientists and engineers who came from all over to work at Mission Control. We didn’t get any astronauts, but we did get a lot of the powerful people who made things happen.

We landed human beings on the Moon in 1969 — finally getting ahead of the Russians at something in space — and then started scaling back. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, the space program was a Cold War program — war by other means. But it was also a prime example of what people can do when there’s money and support for a program.

And if you want to talk about the economy, you can just look at the growth of the area where I grew up in the post-NASA days. I can’t say I liked all that growth — some of it was environmentally irresponsible — but there were plenty of jobs.

Had we kept up the pace from the 1960s, we could be mining the Asteroid Belt by now. We could have some settlements on the Moon and maybe even on Mars. The kind of work the rovers are now doing on Mars could be happening on other planets in our Solar System.

xkcd had a good comic this week showing all habitable planets within 60 light years of Earth:

Habitable planets with 60 light years of Earth

Our Neighborhood

Other countries — Steven mentioned India and China — are now working on space exploration, and private businesses have begun some projects. Imagine what we could do if there was real, widespread, economic support for such projects.

We can’t reach those habitable planets yet, but what if we were focused on finding a way to do that? What else might we discover?

I’m not advocating doing this at the expense of dealing with poverty, by the way. We can afford to do both. It’s a matter of how we set our priorities as a society. Me, I think space programs, health care, education, and infrastructure are a lot more important than making it easy for the rich to get even richer.



If Space Is the Final Frontier, Why Aren’t We There Yet? — 17 Comments

  1. It’s quite possible that the 1960s were like the Viking colonization of Vinland: efforts that could be made under current technology but could not be sustained. The space efforts nowadays, you notice, are much more broadly based.

    • I’m sure the Moon landing stretched available technology and that a more broad-based approach after that point made sense. But we cut way back on funding and ambition after we got to the Moon, even though technology continued to boom.

      I don’t think the Viking analogy is apt. The Vikings who settled Vinland were pretty much on their own, with only the resources at hand. That would be more like a situation where some crazy engineers got together and made it to the Moon, but didn’t have any supply lines to follow them up.

        • As I recall, they also had no support from anyone back home. Though given the distance and the various things going on, that might have been impossible at the time even if there had been someone willing to do it. We were better equipped by the 80s to support missions to the Moon, etc.

          I don’t think we were ready to settle the Moon after the Apollo program. But we cut the whole space program way back and have continued to do so. If we had built on our successes back then — even if some of them were right at the edge of what we could do — I think we could have some kind of settlements on the Moon (maybe just short term scientific stations), and be starting to mine the Asteroid Belt. That would be a boon scientifically and economically.

  2. And there’s life in nationalism and paranoia yet. There are only two drivers of exploration historically: money (we will harvest beaver and turn their fur into hats! Those Inca don’t need that gold!) or national power (Brazil must not be in the Spanish Empire! Only the Union Jack must fly at the pole!!). The calls of science and the expansion of knowledge have always been a way-distant third.
    Let the Chinese start a moon colony, and suddenly the talking heads will start to worry.

  3. I don’t know that we need to occupy Mars (although I regard that as inevitable–if not the US, then humankind in general), but we should certainly be moving outward to explore. Who knows: there may be Space Beavers for Brenda to turn into hats. I also think that it’s possible that moving into space can teach us wasteful humans things about husbanding the planet we’re on right now. And we need those sorts of lessons.

  4. Thanks for the great post, Nancy. As it happens, I’ve been work on two articles about the exploration of Mars. Alas, neither are in print yet, but I’ve talked to folks involved in the Curiosity rover mission and to a former astronaut. It’s amazing what we’re doing with Curiosity, and have done with the other rovers and other satellite missions, but even a scientist working on Curiosity told me there is only so much we can do with a robot. For example, there may well be life on Mars, but it could be living far underground, and we can’t drill that deep with a robot. That kind of work requires a human hand to fix the inevitable problems that come with drilling deep.

    By the way, I also discovered a fascinating journal article from 2010 written by retired astronaut Steve Hawley where he considers the challenges of going to Mars. You can find it online at: http://journalofcosmology.com/Mars112.html

    I’m with you, Nancy. I think we have to get back into exploring the final frontier. I think we will, but it certainly hasn’t happened on the time frame I expected.

    • Great link, Diane. It seems obvious to me that we can’t fix all the problems from back on Earth and need skilled people in the field to work with the rovers and such.

  5. And then there’s the stagnation factor: if we don’t go out and colonize something soon we’re going to stagnate and cannibalize. Personally I’d hate to see Mars despoiled too, but on the other hand, the “life” that’s on Mars can probably handle our efforts.

    • Given the amount of care needed to deal with Mars, perhaps we won’t despoil it. Though no one ever went broke predicting the harm that can be done by human beings.

  6. Colonization never solved a population or natural-resource crisis at home. So I don’t look to space for that opportunity. Yes, we may someday soon have little huts on Mars or orbiting stations with permanent small populations — and we should keep up the exploration. The technology developed for those missions can assist us in understanding and solving the most serious problems of our age. And if we don’t solve those, there will soon be no intelligent life left here that could ever reach the stars.

    • Yes. I think the whole thing is integrated. That’s why I reject the “solve our problems here first approach.” I don’t think space exploration will solve those — though I hope you’re right that some of what we do for that work will pay off dividends on Earth — but I don’t think putting off our ambitions and dreams will help us solve them either.

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  8. We need a cheap, readily available way for a lot of people to get to space, colonizing the asteroid belt would be best..lots of surface area.
    It is nice to think that we will have the Jetson’s flying cars, but that is very unlikely in the near future.
    I’ve been proposing that we use balloons, using Hydrogen for lift (danger!, explosive!) and adding oxygen from cylinders for a small rocket boost. The empty shell can be used as a solar sail.
    At very least, we can send cargo up cheaper than a hydrogen+oxygen rocket currently in use.
    More @ http://www.h2liftship.com

    • Ooh, cool. Balloons in space. I agree about the asteroid belt. There’s space to settle and there are various valuable minerals out there for developing an economy, too.