Spaceflight Fancy?

I recently read an interview with the noted biologist E. O. Wilson, who is rather eloquent on the need for a far more environmentally conscious public, and I was agreeing with much of what he said – until I got to the part of the interview where he essentially said that human space travel was a dangerous delusion that should be scrapped, and that, if treated properly, the earth can provide for humanity for as long it needs s place to live.  Now… I understand what he was saying in one sense, because there is no physical way that we could ever move even a significant minority of human beings off Earth to another locale.  The earth is likely to be habitable for far longer than the existence of any previous species in the history of the planet, but without greater environmental awareness and action, that habitability for humans will be threatened, if not destroyed.

Am I an unrealistic dreamer in wanting humanity to reach beyond one planet – even if only a tiny minority of men and women do so?  Or am I a realist, considering that at least once a large space object struck earth and the resulting ecological and physical disasters wiped out thousands of species, among them the dinosaurs?

One of the better traits of human beings is to reach beyond the here and now, to dream of what might be.  A second trait is that we tend to do better when we’re pursuing dreams, even impossible or impractical dreams.  We certainly made far greater strides in many fields, including technology, when we were engaged in the space race with the USSR – regardless of the motivations behind that gigantic effort.  Is it mere coincidence that the ancient Egyptian civilization that pursued its dreams of immortality, however flawed the basis of those dreams, was also the longest lasting?

We also have a tendency to become insulated and self-seeking when we don’t pursue dreams, as at present, when political and social conflict after conflict is taking place in the United States, and elsewhere, over who gets control over what.  The entire debate over healthcare is an example.  Rather than finding ways to expand healthcare coverage to those who don’t have it, all the powerful political factions are arguing over why this group and that group shouldn’t have to pay for it – an argument along the lines of “I’ve got mine; you get your own.”  The anti-immigrant debate follows the same logic, ignoring the fact that the nation made massive strides in the past based on immigrant contributions.

The science budgets of almost all major nations, except the Chinese, are dwindling, and certainly U.S. politicians have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear on all but modest scientific studies.

And what are the dreams of today? A better tiny gadget for introspection [the I-phone], video games with super graphics, the establishment of a theo-political state, the amassing of great concentrations of wealth, the celebritization of society?

No thank you, I’d prefer the dreams of endless space, and the wonders of the stars. What about you?


17 thoughts on “Spaceflight Fancy?”

  1. Tiffanie H. says:

    Have you heard the story of the guy from Japan who sold one of his kidneys for an i-pod? I was listening to a local radio station and several people called in to voice their opinions. One commented: “Have you seen the latest i-pod?” Another:”You don’t need two kidneys.”
    I watched another (unrelated) show on T.V. (Food Network), a documentary on food waste in the United States. According to them, 40 percent of our food goes to waste because it doesn’t meet with high American standards. For example, produce has to adhere to size requirements and be completely without blemish.
    Yet, there is another statistic (a flyer sent home from my children’s school) stating that 1 in 6 Americans do not have enough to eat.
    What does all this have to do with endless space and stars? A question: How are we supposed to space travel when we can’t even manage with what we’ve got? When have dreams become so selfish and shallow?
    What are dreams but the desires of our hearts?
    Unfortunately for human nature there must be a motivating need. If we knew our planet had only fifty years of existence left, you can bet there would be an awakening of ‘dreams’ aplenty.

    1. Alan says:

      A side note for Tiffanie’s comments. A recent series of articles was produced by public broadcasting, for their talk radio show. They discussed food wastage in the US and the reasons for it. Approximately 800 pounds of food, mainly in produce, is wasted daily in each supermarket around the country. The forty percent number applies to produce losses due expiration. That number is down from sixty percent. The twenty percent is taken out when supermarkets take produce expiring on the shelves and use it to make pre-made salads, sandwiches, etc.

      The food that is wasted is still usable, but the average US citizen does not wish to eat it because it it’s condition is not perfect. The supermarkets waste this food simply because it is easier to do so then deal with the public over it. There are some programs that arrange for the delivery of this wastage, in produce or other products, to soup kitchens and other charitable organizations. The down side there is that federal and state regulations make it complicated and difficult for the stores.

      Hard for anyone to get things done when government complicates it unnecessarily.

      1. Tiffanie H. says:

        Thank you Alan for clarifying 🙂 You speak with an eloquence I can appreciate.

    2. R. Hamilton says:

      @Tiffanie H: if you mean to suggest some either-or between meeting human needs (or taking reasonable care for the environment) vs space exploration, I just don’t see it. The only way to solve human problems is to give more people reasons to _choose_ to be part of the solution, not primarily by government or any other grandiose organization, but by people choosing to identify and meet needs and more, to teach others to do the same. There are a lot of small, mostly private, projects to do things as odd as turn village waste into a source of power sufficient for a a few lights and charging a phone (with which help could be summoned, information obtained about markets for local products, etc). The best of those could be done mostly using local materials, scrap metal, etc.

      A hundred, a thousand, eventually a million ideas that solve local problems on a small scale in ways that people can replicate for themselves in small groups…_that_ will accomplish change that no government can produce.

      Materialism may be part of the difficulty of solving the ability of humans to function well together with one another (and, if you think in those terms, with the environment of which they’re a part). But technology isn’t, nor is people having the opportunity to decide which cause to support for themselves rather than having government re-apportion vast resources. A simple and primitive gadget that improves life under poor conditions might have its design perfected using tools far beyond the means of those that could then apply that design for themselves.

      There are even investment funds for those that wish to support work that has value to people over and above making the most money as fast as possible. But note that ANY sustainable investment has to in the long run not only pay for itself, but provide an additional return on the investment in cash as well as in good feelings, social consciousness, or whatever.

      The war on poverty is not winnable by giving people food or shelter or any other basic necessity, but only by equipping them to provide for themselves and participate in providing for the relatively few that are truly unable to provide for themselves.

      Moreover, a manned presence on Mars would almost certainly cost less than either a mid-size war or the corrupt relationship that expanding government has with those it purports to either regulate or govern.

      As foolish indulgences go, dreams of endless frontier are much more likely to have some long-term benefits than dreams of power or wealth.

      1. Tiffanie H. says:

        To Hamilton: When have dreams become so selfish and shallow?
        It is to the human heart that I refer. The government is a group of people. A group of people can then be narrowed down to individuals.
        Alan has spoken of it in his comments: “What we had discussed was the tendency of society to stratify and ossify, then fracture in some manner. The forces acting on it vary, social, political, religious, etc. That without a frontier to push, of some sort, the decay happens faster.”
        I speak of the decay of the individual:
        “We also have a tendency to become insulated and self-seeking when we don’t pursue dreams, as at present, when political and social conflict after conflict is taking place in the United States, and elsewhere, over who gets control over what.” —L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
        Materialism is only a tool. So are ideas. Neither are of any use to a corrupt individual.
        An either/or (meeting human needs vs space exploration) was not meant. I intended to identify some of the ‘signs of decay’ that as Alan very aptly suggested: “lead to the dream of a frontier.” We are part of a repetitive cycle that has already taken place many times in our history.
        “Unfortunately for human nature there must be a motivating need.”
        Perhaps that ‘need’ will soon reach its climax and the cycle must needs repeat itself.
        “How are we supposed to space travel when we can’t even manage with what we’ve got?” This question may have been what confused you. By ‘management’ I meant greed, a consuming human trait. We mortals may not yet be ready for the management of the cosmos. We may (in our own stupidity) yet destroy ourselves. Imagine if we were to take down the universe as well? Or am I being presumptuous?
        What are dreams but the desires of our hearts?

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          The universe is in little danger from us anytime soon. Even if we fully cooperated with one another, and if rapid transport to anywhere was assumed, enough challenges would remain that population growth alone would not make us a threat.

          I don’t see greed as quite the problem…what I see is simply that there are those who need to be reminded about the _enlightened_ part of “enlightened self-interest”.

          But if we see the solution as depending on individuals rather than being imposed by organizations, perhaps we agree in that regard at least.

          1. Tiffanie H. says:

            Anytime SOON…
            And after?
            I think most dreamers are prone to lean toward Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy of rational selfishness. Would that there were more ‘enlightened’ self interest sacrificial lambs– this world would be a much different place.
            Unfortunately, not many people are ‘enlightened’ and if they are they are often blind to the fallacy within themselves.
            I agree that individuals can be depended upon as part of the solution to our problems (greed being one of many), but I cannot discount the merit of an organization made up of unselfish, hardworking individuals striving toward the same dream/goal. A single thread of string can be broken easily, but a rope made up of the same string is much harder to break. However, if the integrity of each of the individual strings are in question what good is the rope?
            As far as being imposed upon (by government, organization, rulers, etc.), I am reminded of the parent– teenager relationship. The behavior of the child can often be predicted by the expectation of the parent. Parent’s who believe their children unworthy of trust, and treat them thus, often end up with what they cultivate. The same can be said for parents who believe their children trustworthy.
            When a child is imposed upon by a domineering parent, they often become resentful, feeling stifled and frustrated. Growth (whether personal or otherwise) is stunted and/or delayed until the child can break free. This ‘relationship’ can be seen in governments and organizations throughout history. Can we not see, by our current growth, where we stand?

  2. Alan says:

    This was a discussion topic within the psychology class I took in college, actually. And then was later mirrored in the sociology course. What we had discussed was the tendency of society to stratify and ossify, then fracture in some manner. The forces acting on it vary, social, political, religious, etc. That without a frontier to push, of some sort, the decay happens faster. That socially the human race responds best to challenges as a group. To have that frontier to explore and learn about. A constant quest, as it were, for what is over the next hill.

    Individuals, we covered in psychology class, were also drawn to these same frontiers for a variety of the same reasons. The chance to make a name, to explore, see something different. To establish their own culture or live a lifestyle they choose.

    But between the two ways of viewing humanity, as individuals or groups, it was concluded that having the dream of a frontier was very important.

    I believe that now, more then ever, we need this. From materials such as the vast resources identified in the asteroid belt. To the expansion into space born cultures that humanity will use to expand the race to other planets. Eventually we must expand beyond our little world. For the survival of the race, certainly. But also for the growth and development that will come with exploration of the cosmos.

  3. Mayhem says:

    One counterpoint – the vast strides in science and technology this last century were initially driven by fear, not by dreams. At least in terms of funding direction from above.

    Listen to Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak on the space programs – Sputnik was launched in 1957 on what was an ICBM platform, a necessary warhead redesign meant there was a gap in the schedule to launch a scientific satellite.
    The fear induced in the general American public lead directly to the founding of NASA, ARPA/DARPA and indirectly from that to a vast quantity of what we take for granted today…

    1. Mayhem says:

      In fact the driver of fear is one reason a number of former senior government types around the world have expressed wishes in recent years that the various apocalyptic scenarios around invasions by aliens or asteroid impacts could actually happen – it would make all the factions work together for a while to solve the problem and give a big kickstarter to civilization along with it.

      Mostly because for all intents and purposes, the question of how to kill people most efficiently is effectively a solved problem now.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    There is an essential allure to exploration that any 3 year old can understand. Some outgrow it and some do not.

    These dreams are neither shallow nor selfish, Tiffany. You calling my dreams – or those of anyone else – is thoughtless, if not downright rude.

    I was poor for a long time. Even right now, as part of the hated 1% (of which I am in the bottom 10% of that 1%), I can still vividly taste the sourness in my mouth when I was on day #2 of nothing to eat because I was waiting for my minimum wage job payday and I had just paid for my schooling for the semester. What kept me in college, working towards something better?


    Never, ever discount the effect of the allure of something out beyond your grasp that, if you work hard, you can achieve. In the 1400-1500s it was the new world, in the 1900s it was the moon. I have very high expectations for the next few decades, both here on this particular gravity well and for those fortunate enough to leave it it for others.

    1. Tiffanie H. says:

      To Wine Guy: I sincerely apologize for being thoughtless and/or rude. My words seem to bring about a lot of misinterpretation (Something I’m working on improving). Let me just say that I’m really enjoying this discussion and I thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.
      As for your dreams and those of others (including my own): I do not believe that dreams are in and of themselves shallow and selfish. In fact, I think they are of man’s highest attributes.
      Shallow and selfish are the ways some men (and women) go about attaining their dreams (This is the decay of which I speak).
      I applaud your tenacity and hard work in getting through college. Contrast it with another person who might have been in your position who instead lied, cheated, or stole his/her way through because they didn’t want to work to get what they wanted? Contrast it with the guy who (instead of doing it the old fashioned way of working and saving up his money) sold his kidney for an i-pod? He wasn’t willing to work; he wasn’t willing to wait. He wanted that instant gratification and he wanted it now.
      I could go on and on about what’s going on in America, but that would be depressing. Yes, there is corruption, and an overwhelming feeling of entitlement in a lot of the minds of man today, but let me assure you that I share your belief (and hope and dream) than humanity will eventually expand beyond its current sphere (beyond even space). With the ability to adapt, and hope and dream and create, what isn’t possible?
      I thank you for reminding me of that.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    @ Tiff:
    I have very little patience for those who are not willing to put in the effort to do a job properly and then expect to be compensated for it. I won’t say that a kidney isn’t worth an i-Pad – but I will absolutely say that I hope the lad learned something from his experience. If not, well, his life can still be a learning experience for someone else.

    I agree with you that many people expect much in return for little – and it isn’t just in the U.S. I’ve lived overseas. If you think people in the U.S. feel entitled, you’ve never heard an Italian or Greek complain about their benefits or perceived lack thereof.

    I bring this up because American’s see themselves as rugged individualists, but there’s almost nowhere for that to actually happen these days. The Old West is now civilized. Less than 5% of the population has been part of the military where self-reliance and initiative is expected on a day to day basis (and even the military is becoming more of a managerial thing than a leadership thing – ask anyone who’s been in for more than 5 years -I was in for 10). When we AS A CULTURE lose our self-image of self-reliance, what comes next? Right now, we’re finding out.

  6. Alan says:

    Wine Guy, your attitude is commendable. I absolutely concur with the notion that people get what they deserve, If you don’t work for it, put forth the effort, the product will not be worth having. This is a common theme in today’s culture. That people deserve more, for less, with less effort. That sense of entitlement, which has been discussed here on LEM’s blog previously.

    I believe you’re right about the direction of the US culture. The loss of self-reliance and the expectation that others will provide the support and initiative needed for continued progress is depressing in many ways.

    There was a recent article in a military newspaper, asking this: Does being in the military make you grumpier? The experiment and data collected was conducted by a German psychologist and through a variety of colleges. They used a mandatory military service requirement country, such as Germany, as a control group. And then surveyed many other militaries in the world.

    The result was as expected. Of course being in the military makes you grumpier. The first line of the article was: ‘Duh!’ The article was quickly refuted by many military members (Current, former and retired), spouses and families. There was a variety of points broached, but the long and short of it was that military personnel are irrevocably stamped with a lack of patience for idiocy and incompetence. They want results, not complaints. They want solutions, not bitches and gripes.

    With the military constituting so small a percentage of the population in any country, this attitude cannot be said to be prevalent. The ‘can do’ spirit is slowly slipping away from societies in western culture. Now countries, such as India and China, who are going through their own industrial revolutions and technological surges as their communities begin an upswing into life styles more along the lines of the western ideal are demonstrating this initiative. Not that they are there, yet. Nor do they enjoy the rich quality of life most westerners do.

    It is considered a bit trite and cliche, that the older generation is saddened by the modern generation. Decade after decade, they complain about how things were better in their day. Better and more difficult. I believe that with each generation within the US we see that loss of growth (in any fashion from morals to accomplishment) because of the changes within the generations. The generation who grew up in the 70’s, to the generation growing up now, deals with such a vastly different culture that they’ve lost the desire to be great individuals. To be a great people. Instead they feel entitled to easier lives, cheaper living and better quality of life as they feed off of the previous generations. How many great people can you name from the generation born in the eighties? Yet how many from the decades prior to the seventies are considered ‘great’? Not famous, not wealthy, but great.

    Sadly, it is this continued loss which I think will result in the success of other countries. Successes which may well lead to them being the dominant forces in the future. To include within our eventual expansion to realms unknown.

  7. Joe says:

    I don’t see space as a dream, but a necessity. Unless mankind spreads life into space, it will have been a costly failure.

    We are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction. Incredible genetic diversity is being lost to monocultures to support our growing population. By killing species we have destroyed information gathered over millennia by the blind watchmaker. Unlike gold, which is inert and available in vast quantities in space, life is infinitely precious and incredibly improbable. We only know of it for certain on one planet, in fact only on the thin 30 km skin of one planet. The cost of our destruction can only be repaid, if we spread life to new planets. There, new species will arise, and this amazing impossibility will continue and flourish. To me, Elon Musk is a true inspiration: his company SpaceX is working to spread life to Mars, when even governments have given up and care only for short term economic gain.

    The only other task of value to the larger picture (not just us, and the concerns dictated by our short lifetimes) is true artificial intelligence. Their rationality will not be limited by the heuristics that have helped us survive so far (procreating, preferring gain to loss, understanding how to solve specific problems but not their larger impact). Perhaps a world including more rational entities will bring out our better side, and change humanity.

    1. Tiffanie H. says:

      Amazing impossibility.
      I like the way you worded that. It gives life and intelligence the credit it deserves. Isn’t all life an amazing impossibility? It’s all around us, yet most people take it for granted.
      We’re so limited in our knowledge of the universe and what other life it may hold. Our scientific belief system of the past has surely shown how ignorant we are. First, the earth was the center of the universe (geocentric model). Then came the sun (heliocentrism). After that Edwin Hubble discovered that our sun was part of a galaxy. One of many billions.
      Time and time again we’ve been proven false because of limited knowledge and perspective. We wonder if we are the only life in this vast universe we are only just beginning to discover. Are we not egotists? To think that our planet is the sole proprietor of life?
      I think there will be some surprising discoveries for our future.
      Life is an amazing impossibility, something we see– and don’t see– happening every day.

  8. Brian Kelman says:

    We cease to be human if we cease to dream.

    As for “…dreams of endless space, and the wonders of the stars.”? This dream has been in my imagination since I read Clarke’s “The City and the Stars”, Asimov’s “The Caves of Steel” and watching “Star Trek” reruns after school.

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