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Full Speed Ahead!

Entry 2007, on 2019-10-16 at 17:51:44 (Rating 2, Politics)

I recently listened to podcast which covered the arguments for and against human missions to Mars. Space exploration has always been a subject which has stimulated a lot of conversation, both for and against, and things don't seem any different now, because good arguments can be made for both sides.

So in this post, I should list out some of the pros and cons of manned space flight, and then finish with some more wide ranging thoughts on this, and related subjects.

The first, and maybe most obvious, issue is the cost. People think that spending money on space exploration is a waste, and those significant sums would be better spent elsewhere. They point out that other issues, such as climate change, global hunger, or peace-keeping might be able to utilise that money for greater good.

But others counter this by saying that the actual amount spent on space isn't that high. For example the US spends well under 1% of the total federal budget on NASA. That isn't much more than a rounding error on the military budget, so is the amount of money spent really that critical? Also, there is no guarantee that if NASA's budget was cut that the money saved would be used productively. Maybe it is more likely to be added to what is already spent on the military!

Finally, are those other problems really driven by cost? For example, if a few billion extra could be spent on issues related to climate change, would it make the political situation any different? Maybe not, because the politics would still essentially be the same as they were before the extra funding was available.

So what about issues relating to matters of practicality? Is it reasonable to plan on sending humans to Mars when robots and other forms of automation can do the job far more safely, cheaply, and practically?

Well, that is a good question which could be argued both ways. Robotic probes have been incredibly successful and have often lasted years longer than the initial plan stated. But many scientists point out that humans are still far more flexible than any machine, and that there is still no real alternative for doing detailed exploration.

Additionally, as well as exploration, we might eventually want to start a colony on Mars where humans could permanently live. This would mean the species has a far better chance of surviving existential treats, such as asteroid impact, catastrophic climate change, and global pandemics.

Also, related to matters of practicality, we have to ask whether it is even possible to send humans to Mars safely without significant improvements in technology. Possible issues which might be difficult to resolve, include radiation accumulated during the long journey, provision of life support once the destination is reached, and psychological and physical problems relating to living on a planet with almost no atmosphere, about a third the gravity of Earth, and an average temperature of negative 60 degrees Celsius.

These problems can all be overcome, but would it be better to wait another 50 years until the technology is better before even trying? Again, a case could be made both ways.

So now on to more abstract matters of morality. Do we have the right to take over another world and change it to suit ourselves? If there was life on Mars many people - even great proponents of science like Carl Sagan - have argued we should keep away. This is mainly because of potential contamination from Earth life - especially bacteria and viruses - which might adversely affect existing life on Mars.

Others go further and say we have messed up Earth so badly that we don't have the right to do the same thing to another planet, even if there is no life there. And yes, yet again, a case could be made both ways.

So by debating practical and philosophical points no real consensus becomes apparent. But there is one final aspect of this I should mention. That is that in the past the idea of exploration being necessary was just taken for granted. It was just something that needed to be done, and the fatalities and other disasters which happened to explorers of the Earth are well known. Given the context of the time, were expeditions to the South Pole any more risky than space exploration is now?

It seems to me that we have lost a lot of our confidence and our aspiration to explore and discover. We look at the past and only see the negatives - of colonialism, of environmental damage, of poorly planned exploitation of new lands - without understanding that there were many positives as well.

We - and by that I mainly mean the Western world - have lost our way as a civilisation. We are too cautious, too easily persuaded by negative arguments, too guilty about our misdeeds from the past. Money is important, technology is important, and some degree of caution in relation to the practical and symbolic outcomes of space exploration should be considered too.

But we need to get our confidence back. We need to return to that sense of curiosity we used to have. We should decide that we want to go to Mars as soon as is practical, then figure out how to overcome the possible problems. That's how progress has been made in the past, and that's the best way to continue making progress in the future. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes!

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