Friday, June 16, 2006

On Hawkings

There's been a lot of whining about Stephen Hawking's speech calling for space colonies. And it's true that space colonies won't solve any problems that we have here on earth, and there's a serious danger that we will just replicate our mistakes. We aren't smart enough to maintain our own planet in homeostasis, why should we expect that we could successfully terraform another planet, or even create a safe enclosure? Fair points all, but in the end, SI'm with Gene Expression:
I'm not going to defend the details of Hawking's argument, I think the time scale is a little compressed (I'm being generous). But, I am going to defend the dream, because to venture into space isn't just a utilitarian decision, it is an artistic act. Yes, you heard me right. Human beings engage in a lot of peculiar and "wasteful" activities, from massive architecture to baroque entertainments, and yes, even to esoteric scientific projects.
After the Discovery accident, various people pointed out that the space shuttle program was largely a failed vision. The Shuttles were supposed to provide fast, cheap jumps to orbit, where we could assemble big interplanetary ships to explore the universe. It turned out that they couldn't be turned around that fast and weren't that cheap, and a lot of energy was invested figuring out how to squish interesting missions into their limited space. A lot human operated experiments on the ISS or the Shuttles could have been put in little robotic satellites for less money and effort.

And the critics were right. The Shuttle program was full of broken promises. But that can't be the end of the story.

I got this letter published in the New York Times as a reply to an Op-Ed by Paul Krugman:

Paul Krugman is correct that the human exploration of space has been a failure, but only in a limited sense. The world mourned the deaths of those seven people because spaceflight exalts human potential. Yuri Gagarin, by briefly visiting space, accomplished something unique not only in humanity's history, but also Earth's.

The scientists and pilots who have followed him show their earthbound peers what heights individual excellence can take us to.

Space exploration is about science, of course. But it's worth doing for its own sake. It's worth building a base on Mars or on the Moon for the same reason it was worth Mallory's time to summit Everest, or for Columbus to sail into the open ocean. Plenty of sailors died trying to follow him, and plenty died before. And no one can claim that the army of trekkers following Mallory haven't done harm to Everest, nor that those of us who benefit from Columbus' exploration haven't despoiled two wild and free continents. But whatever Vine Deloria, Jr. would say, I don't think we should all go back to our nations of origin. It was worth it.

Themoonbitches-ViObviously, this sort of mission shouldn't detract from vital and productive projects like the Hubble Telescope and unmanned exploration of the solar system.

That would be shortsighted and foolish. So would pushing this too fast as some sort of stop-gap response to pollution and climate change. I don't know about you, but I was raised not to leave my problems for someone else to fix.

But that isn't an argument against space exploration. After all…

"We going to Mars, M-A-R-S. Mars, bitches!"