There is a spirited debate going on at the Economist advocating that NASA abandon its plans to send a manned mission to Mars. Now this is a topic that I have strong feelings about, as you might be able to guess. And the debate fascinates me as much as it frustrates me. The people commenting on the article are falling into several different and predictable camps. Anybody interested in the subject will be familiar with the talking points on both sides and recognize the various groups.
In the first camp we have the folks, including a large number of scientists, who believe that its all about the science and should be decided strictly on the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. (Hey, its the Economist web site after all!) They come out against NASA’s manned mission to Mars based on the fact that far more missions (and therefore more science) could be performed by robots for the same investment.
In the second camp we have those that feel that any expenditure on space exploration is a tragic farce when there is so much that needs fixing on this planet. A tiny subset of these people are actually *for* manned space exploration in that they expect that we are all going to destroy the planet and drown in our own hubris. They would like to be off the planet by then, thank you. But the vast majority of the drama queens, chicken littles and bleeding hearts come down firmly against any expenditure on space travel at all.
And in the last group we have those that actually think that NASA should continue its manned spaceflights including the mission back to the moon and then on to Mars. For some its cultural. For others its a matter of leadership. Still others see profit opportunities here and there. But in general they believe that NASA should definitely be blazing the trail.
I’m actually having a hard time figuring out which group I belong to, believe it or not. I feel I don’t fit in to any of these groups. So let’s set out some unassailable truths.
Extinction level events are given that moniker because there really is no escape. Put aside that denial, please. If such an event were ever to occur in the future of our planet (as it has numerous times in its history) we are all goners, full stop. And our entire species is a goner if there is not an entirely independent group of humans living off the planet somewhere in space. Its as simple as that. And while these extinction events are extremely rare, given a long enough time period the chances of having one approaches certainty. So for me, an end to manned space exploration is tantamount to species suicide; like standing in front of an oncoming train and deciding not to expend the energy to jump out of the way.
Government Central Planning is an exceedingly bad way of accomplishing scientific discovery. NASA is a government agency and operates in a political arena. It is a timid, risk averse, ass-covering government agency completely unsuited to be in charge of humanity’s expansion into the greater cosmos. Some would argue that these projects are too big, too uncertain, too dangeous and too expensive for private enterprise to do on its own. I disagree with this completely. In fact I would say that the only way exploration is going to take hold and be a permanent human endeavor is if it is done by private, profit-seeking groups. You start in your garage, you make continous improvements, and expand mercilously until you are the Exxon/Mobile of space exploration and commerce.
So I guess my position is that it doesn’t hurt to have NASA continue its manned missions. But I’m finding that I really don’t care one way or the other. For me, the NASA manned missions are largely beside the point. Until our most efficient economic actors (the profit-seeking corporations) are running the show, the whole concept is not going to be self-sustaining. I think it is inevitable that we will expand into space and only a matter of time before it happens. But it might not be the United States of America where this gets done.
Quite frankly, I desparately want to be part of the culture that leads the expansion of humanity into space. If Japan succeeds in building its space elevator, I swear that I am definitely going to immigrate there (I’ll just keep knocking and knocking until they let me in) and leave this debating society behind.
An extremely interesting and entertaining book about large scale catastrophe is A Choice of Catastrophes by Isaac Asimov. It was published in the 70′s and was not a big hit for Isaac. You may have a hard time finding one. Ebay may be good place to look.
And yes, I hope you felt my picture choice was humorous, as an sneaky reference to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy story of planetary destruction and space travel.
By the way, the Economist magazine is the best and most important magazine on the planet.