Monday 22 March 2021

Will Deep Space Be Our Destiny?

Earth rising
‘Earthrise’, from 50 years ago, is one of the most influential images from the Apollo space program 

Posted by Keith Tidman


Humankind’s curiosity about the universe, and yearning to explore its vastness, has been insatiable … 

  • Early hominids staring inquisitively at patterns in the dotted night sky
  • Copernicus contemplating the heavens through his telescope, and our place in space
  • The iconic landing of humans on the craggy moon surface
  • Twin Viking vehicles sending back vast troves of information as they traverse interplanetary and interstellar space
  • The Hubble space-based telescope capturing images of the farthest reaches of the universe, revealing the early moments of creation
  • The detection of habitable planets outside our solar system, inspiring what-ifs as to life there
  • The International Space Station-cum-science lab perched in geostationary space
  • A hive of international satellites performing jobs essential to modern society’s thriving
  • The Perseverance rover alighting on Mars to search for signs of ancient extraterrestrial life 

Our minds — the font of our imagination, inquisitiveness, dreams, and seductive desire for knowledge and understanding — have been enthusiastic spacefarers. Machines, tasked as our proxies, have had their turn to perform these missions; on other occasions, human pioneers have intrepidly taken to space. Paradoxically, these endeavours have not shrunk the universe, but have made it seem all the bigger. They have allowed us to marvel at a universe both harmonious and violent at the same time.


Might the kinds of human-centric and machine-centric endeavours listed above continue to define our longer-range destiny, in still grander and unforeseen ways? Should they?


The hazards posed by some of these missions have been presented as reasons not to engage in them. Space is a hostile place for humans. Yet, with pioneers’ minds open to the reality of inevitable unknowns, there have always been unanticipated risks associated with human exploratory enterprises over the millennia, whether navigating vast roiling oceans or trekking across unfamiliar, harsh landmasses. The current and future probing of space will be no exception to this historical course.


The fatal explosion of two space shuttles, one upon launch and the other upon reentry, with astronauts aboard accentuated the potential perils. Cosmonauts have faced similar fates. The poignancy of the price in human lives and health is not lost on us: The motivation of space exploration, discovery, and learning has always entailed a linking of emotion and reason, with acceptance of the possible consequences like these sobering mishaps.


One of the more menacing hazards during human missions beyond the Earth’s protective magnet field is radiation, with its deleterious effects on the central nervous system, as well as on cognitive and motor functions. Also, experiments with one twin on Earth and the other on a lengthy stay in space have revealed the problematic alteration of cells and genes. And astronauts’ transition from one gravity field to another has raised a need to examine re-adaptation by the body’s systems. We’re vulnerable, to be sure.


Yet, these and other hazards won’t hamper humanity’s spirit; these perils, too, will be overcome with time and ingenuity and determination. For the foreseeable future, there will remain an interdependent relationship between the best of machine learning, automation, and resilience and the best of human original thinking, hypothesising, interpretation, extrapolation, and dexterity in pivoting to respond to the unexpected.


Robots and human should be regarded as complementary allies in space exploration, not an either-or proposition. Neither will fully replace the other; nor ought they.


Meanwhile, taking to space for field studies has resulted in a growing cache of scientific and technological spin-offs on Earth. On a practical front, there are myriad and diverse scientific and technological derivatives that enter our everyday lives as consumers, as well as farther-reaching breakthroughs.


These breakthroughs include advances across broad domains: medicine, transportation, communication, food production, water purification, robotics, computing, human physiology, safety, recycling, energy, meteorology, engineering, materials science, and the environment. To those exhaustive extents, among others, investments in space exploration support homebound developments on sundry levels.


As for the budgetary politics of space exploration, and whether they ought to out-place competitive needs at home, one might wonder whether the monumental sums spent on bristling arsenals to fight wars evermore lethally are, in fact, a wiser commitment of capital than is exploring space. Not lost in this particular illustration is the arresting irony in more and more nations believing it an imperative to competitively militarise space.


All that said, when it comes to our spacefaring ambitions, there are, I propose, variables of a more intrinsic nature: like enlightening our thinking about humanity, community, and our deepest values and ideals. 


To these points, theoretical science and pure research have indispensable roles. History brims with examples of what humankind learned — where knowledge and understanding had inherent value in their own right — even if tangible offshoots were years, if ever, in the making and years, if ever, in the full-fledged adoption. An intrinsic value that derives from the persistent evolution of basic science, as well as the riches in new knowledge drawn from irresistibly ploughing untilled ground.


Theoretical science and pure research, even though where they might eventually lead is uncertain, commonly sharpen the cutting edge of human imagination, vision, and inspiration. That’s progress, of a critical sort. Being consumed by short-term thinking, with its emphasis on immediate payback, deprives us of our intellectual seed stock: the foundation for converting hypotheses into interesting and revealing models of our reality, both scientific and philosophical.


Space, then, is not the ‘final frontier’, but rather is only the ‘next frontier’.

Earth is more than the ‘mote of dust’ of Carl Sagan’s imagination. Humanity, I anticipate, will tirelessly play out these spacefaring beginnings, to make its destiny reality.



Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. This is a question, rather than a comment.

We have in this post our natural environment vs. built environments elsewhere. On Earth, a natural environment has sustained us. On other planets, it will likely always be a built environment that sustains us, and an extremely limited one at that. Earth's natural environment is complete, or has been, from the point of view of sustaining us. How complete does an environment need to be to sustain us?

From this, another question arises. How complex does an environment need to be, to sustain us? The reason for this question: we do not seem able to master complexity, as witnessed by our present civilisation.

Keith said...

Thank you for the questions, Thomas, which I take the liberty of folding into the following: ‘How complete [and complex] does an environment need to be, to sustain us?’

I suggest that the ‘natural environment’ we’re familiar with on Earth is vastly more ‘complete’ (‘complex’) than necessary for human sustenance on another world. Put another way, sufficiency in this instance is something fractionally less than the naturally rich abundance we take for granted. I would venture we’re not seeking anything like a one-to-one analog of Earth, in order to sustain human life on exoplanets.

All that said, I propose that the environment on Earth might be characterised as a ‘hybrid’ instead, by which I mean combining both ‘natural’ and ‘built’ conditions. ‘Natural’ is obvious; but ‘built’ too, in the sense that we intercede in our environment through, as just one example, genetic engineering, while also creating great cities and technologies, all to sustain individuals and societies around the world.

Meanwhile, we may reasonably anticipate that the ‘built environment’ to sustain life on an exoplanet will be simpler than Earth’s multivariate environment — requiring more or fewer artificial (built) resources to support human life, depending on an exoplanet’s own natural level of habitability. We’re not expecting to be presented with the need for a one-to-one analog of these hybrid conditions on Earth.

However, to state the obvious, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, and other scientists are at only the embryonic stage of examining conditions on the rapidly growing number of identifiable exoplanets. Much remains to be learned, I suggest, in order to quantify these measures of sufficiency or insufficiency of natural versus built resources for sustaining life on other worlds. Achieving those kinds of necessary metrics around sufficiency is just one of the myriad ‘frontiers’ before us, to which my essay alludes.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I would think that another major issue would be governance. What I have seen in societies that are challenged for survival, government is autocratic. Would one assume an autocratic government, and would that include severe penalties for infractions? And if that were so, could this lead to a breakdown of ties or communications with Earth?

Keith said...

Actually, Thomas, I have to disagree with the premises: That a challenged society would necessarily turn to ‘autocratic governance’ rather than cooperation; that government would choose to administer ‘severe penalties for infractions’; and that government would suffer a ‘breakdown of ties and communications with Earth’. I offer that the premises are too tenuous to build on if one were to try drawing conclusions about the possibilities for societal order (‘governance’) during deep-space missions or colonies.

docmartincohen said...

My second thoughts on Keith's grand dream is that this is a human-centred view of the future - why not think about the Earth as a whole organism, with humans playing a role in safeguarding life and biodiversity? In this case, there might be something to be said for trying to create new environments for not only humans but other species, plants, insects, microbes and germs too! Indeed, I'm not convinced that humans can survive in the aseptic environments imagined by science fiction.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I suspect that Mars colonisers will discover that anything but Earth is not a sustainable environment. They will become the new environmental avant garde, warning us against a reduced environment. You read it first on Pi.

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