Should we stay or should we go?

This blog post is the first in a series of informal dialogues around issues in space sciences, between two of our in-house scientists: Dr. Jean-Claude Worms, our CEO, and Dr. Emmanouil Detsis, one of our Science Officers. The discussions will range from technical to philosophical, and although both authors are advocates of space exploration, they approach the subject from different vantage points: Emmanouil (ED) characterises himself as a cynical optimist and Jean-Claude (JC) as a cheerful realist…

This week’s post focuses on human space exploration.

JC: Exploration is a human activity lying at the convergence of several drivers and behaviours such as curiosity; quest for new territories, conquests and riches; or the need to display a nation’s prestige. When dealing with space exploration though, we have to ask ourselves whether humanity’s drive for exploration, observed throughout the centuries, will stop at Earth’s natural horizons, or will advances in our technical capacity to go to other celestial bodies open up new vistas, new possibilities, new terra incognita fit for human adventure. 

ED: I think it is important to define what we mean with ‘exploration’ here. Do we mean to learn about faraway places? Because we do that already. I think that when we say ‘exploration’ we ALSO imply opening the way to that place so it becomes part of the options one can have on where to live! And this is an important distinction: are we talking about opening up a new world à la Columbus or going someplace and coming back? Because there is a difference in effort and budget between these two activities. I think ‘Space Exploration’, implies opening up space to humanity as an option for colonisation. 

JC: Agreed. To quote a famous television series, exploration is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Indeed what could be bolder for humans than to sit on top of a largely untested rocket, and what has inspired this boldness if not the yearning to go where no one had gone before: around and beyond Earth itself? What could be bolder than to land and walk on the Moon when nobody was certain at the time that the ground underneath would not collapse? From the start of the space age, the motivation was essentially that: for humans to go beyond the edge, beyond the limits.

ED: Instead of Star Trek, allow me to quote Terry Pratchett:

“As every student of exploration knows, the prize goes not to the explorer who first sets foot upon the virgin soil but to the one who gets that foot home first. If it is still attached to his leg, this is a bonus.”

What is being discussed here – here being the book Jingo -  is to be able to lay claim to a land, to inform your country that there is a new land just there so your country can grab it before their rivals. And grabbing means to be able to go there and defend it from others too, i.e. maintain a sustainable presence, often in force. I am a great fun of curiosity as a driving force, but let us be clear that only ‘quest for new territories, conquests and riches’ is the motivation that will get things going regarding a permanent presence in space or extra-terrestrial worlds. And that is perhaps the ONLY way to enable space exploration: offer new territories and riches. 

JC: That should not stop us from trying to enforce a new paradigm! After all, scientists were able, at least so far, to preserve Antarctica from such a purely utilitarian viewpoint. Besides, that is not the only reason. Interviewed by radio channels in 2006, Stephen Hawking argued that,

“Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or a nuclear war could wipe us all out…But once we spread into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe.” 

ED: One can therefore argue that we owe it to the future generations to liberate them from our collective stupidity or the randomness of flying rocks… 

JC: Yes. It has been stated by the famous Tsiolkovsky that the Earth was the cradle of mankind but that one cannot stay in the cradle forever. The formula is elegant and contains a lot of truth, but it can be counter-argued that, while it is both natural and relatively easy for any individual to get out of his cradle, the same does not necessarily hold true for a whole species wanting to collectively get out of and away from a very powerful gravity well. There are many, many obstacles to having humans roam space beyond the Van Allen belts, and these obstacles are biological, physical, and economical. Indeed the last one in that list poses an ethical problem that is difficult to address: 

Is it worthwhile, given our probably limited long-term survivability as a species, and the necessary efforts down here to address the sustainability of our existence on Earth, to bear the huge costs associated with making any kind of significant effort in bringing a number of humans into space? Is it ethical?

ED: I think this has been answered from society unconsciously. We know very well how every year the space community decries the budget cuts or who gets how much in budget appropriations and yet, no one else cares! No politician campaigns on the promise to substantially increase the budget for space (well, except in Texas and anywhere else with big NASA centres or space industry), but I don’t think anyone in Europe made it a concrete campaign item. There is no strong push for it from ‘the people,’ it is as simple as that. It does not affect them (most don’t work in the space sector) and the far future is such a distant place that it does not influence them. 

I do believe that we must leave Earth somehow, Professor Hawkins is very right. Besides the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event that killed the dinosaurs the Earth has endured many other meteorite strikes that possibly wiped out a large percentage of life forms. 

Is it worthwhile? Yes, absolutely. Is it ethical? I am not sure. As it stands, if the effort has to come from taxes to be funded by governments AND would require other sectors to loose budget for that, then probably not. I don’t know anything about ethical budget partitioning for governments, but I suspect that IF an effort were to be made, it would come from social services and other things that are useful to the public, and therefore it will never happen.

That is why I think that only if a way is found for people to make money out of it something will happen. This way, they can pay money to make money and no one has to deprive a country from a large chunk of the budget. Because remember we STILL don’t know how it is even possible to live outside the Earth’s biosphere! As you said yourself:

JC, writing in 2009: “Will humans reach – and settle on – other habitable planets? Here seems indeed to be an urge, a drive borne out of human nature and its desire to walk beyond the horizon, to find other worlds ... The obstacles that pile up before us are, however, immense: stellar distances and constraints imposed by relativity seem to forbid such trips, at least when compared to the span of a human life and unless contemplating practical suspended animation or cryogenic suspension, so-called generation ships, or merging man and machine. Suitable worlds within our reach, then, do not appear to be that frequent. Short of the possibility to effectively terraform Mars, it looks as if human settlements remain a very distant possibility in the future, and perhaps even a downright physical impossibility. Let us assume that these obstacles would somehow be removed or overcome. There remains the solid fact that presenting space colonisation as the possibility to offer new perspectives to millions, actually billions of impoverished human beings, appears impractical and illusory. The mere scale of the enterprise would defeat any society, government of alliance of nations. If the colonisation of other planets were to happen in the future, it could initially probably only be conceived as the bold endeavour of a few daring scientists, entrepreneurs, miners, or even misfits of our societies. Such cosmic salvation will not occur for the starving millions of today – that can only come from us, here and now, down on Earth.”

The point here is that human space exploration, however important and possibly unavoidable as it may be, should not be undertaken on the grounds that it could help in removing the limits to population growth that our planet is faced with. It can, in my view, only be conceived – maybe – as removing those limits in the very long-term.

ED: I agree partially with this. I would like to add two things: First, we need to understand what living in space entails. If it is for a period of a couple of years fine, no problem. If it is FOR EVER, then that is another story. Most people concentrate on building habitats, recycling systems, in-situ resource utilisation schemes but they often leave the other organisms of the earth out. We, human are part of the biosphere. It is a complicated system. We can’t just go and stay somewhere and cut our selves off from it. Life will be miserable and probably short lived (because it is miserable). What I want to argue is that we are not EVEN close to understanding how we can live outside Earth. We are very very far away from having the necessary technology.

The second argument I would like to raise, and the point of disagreement with the above, is that space CAN offer cosmic salvation. You don’t need to take people of the Earth in order to alleviate the world of their presence (could be useful though) but you can envisage bringing resources from space to Earth to alleviate the need for resources. Industry in space, resources from asteroids, energy production in space have all been discussed. We don’t know how to do any of these things, of course, but I think THAT is something we can work on. It will relieve pressure on Earth and will make space a working environment for humans. But of course, first we have to find a reliable, affordable way to go up to space and land back on Earth, with heavy lift capability! Again, no ideas there, and no one seems to be working on this. I honestly don’t see any future for chemical propulsion, i.e. traditional rockets. They go BOOM often and it is very complicated and not powerful for round trips. But then again, no other alternatives, unless we get fusion reactors in 50 years. 

So what is, then, the way forward? Do we abandon these efforts because it is hard? Do we procced with what we do now, sending machines to find out about stuff, and hope that we eventually stumble on to developing the capabilities necessary for a more sustained human presence in space?

JC: No, of course. We need to move on. Besides, do we really want to leave it completely to the machines to explore the universe in our place? The search for extra-terrestrial life is also an extremely powerful driver: can we leave that quest to robots? If there is intelligent life out there, can we talk to it (and if we do, what happens to our societies)? During a debate opposing a famous academician and an astronaut, the former was making the point that, in his view, humans were not needed in space exploration and could easily and more affordably be replaced by robots in all cases. To which the astronaut replied candidly: “Alors ces ordinateurs pourront aussi remplacer les académiciens?” (So these computers will also be able to replace academicians?).

It has also been argued repeatedly, and successfully in my view, that as demonstrated with Apollo and the International Space Station, humans are unique in their ability to recognize and to adapt their response to new observations or serendipitous discoveries.

Naturally, there are places like the vicinity of Jupiter and its radiation environment where only robots can work. The exploration of the planets needs to be done first robotically, and then only with humans where feasible.

But for all the reasons cited above, the decade-old debate on ‘man or machine’ is passé: humans should play a leading role in the exploration of space, alongside robots and probes. Without humans, space exploration will simply lack a vital interest and perspective.

ED: Absolutely, I think people overestimate the robotic capabilities that we have. Robots can do some impressive stuff but they are NOT adaptable, can only do things they have been programmed for and frankly have problems going up stairs and opening doors so how can you trust space exploration to them? Robots are an essential part of the effort (can’t do it without advanced robotics), but we need humans to be there.  We need to work on this problem from a different perspective than perhaps we have now. The question is not, “How can we go there? How can we land people on Mars/the Moon, etc.?” 

The questions we should be trying to answer are:

  • How can we bring back a 1000-ton titanium asteroid to Earth?
  • How can we place a factory into orbit?
  • Why can’t we build nuclear spacecraft? 

JC: Beyond these scientific and technical accomplishments, which, I agree, are important, I think we need to work hard on finding a way to convince the general public (the politicians will easily follow from this step) that efforts to bring the human race to the stars are vital for our long-term survivability and the future of our species. Some progress has already been made for close-by issues such as space debris around the Earth (because it indeed has economic implications) and NEO (because of Bruce Willis). I am not sure the movie Interstellar has yet brought that need to the forefront of human consciousness, but it is “one small step…”


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