Sunday, November 28, 2021

Space Exploration

Subtitle: We don't have a reason, we just wanna.

I was listening to entirely secular but very agreeable people discuss Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, NASA and the advantages of manned versus unmanned space exploration and had the overwhelming feeling that nothing has changed since I first started thinking seriously about this after reading CS Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet in the 1980s. There are important philosophical issues that should be undergirding any such discussion which are simply absent. It is not as if I am finding they are disagreeing with my premises so much as they are simply oblivious to any of it.

They discuss one possible motivation for much-more expensive manned travel and eventual settlement that humankind might somehow "need" this, because of environmental or geopolitical problems.  We might need to have a place to settle ourselves because we have rendered this world...what? Too dirty even though 8B of us are surviving here so that we have to find a way to get a few hundred of us off the earth to "rescue" the species? Whew. We got a few of us onto Mars or Europa just in time, eh? Mankind is saved! Or because the first moon landing was all about America showing its primacy, maybe a Mars trip could be a joint affair with America, Russia, Europe, China and India!  This would be about cooperation instead of competition and geopolitical warfare this time. And that would clearly be so much better for the 8B of us because...why, exactly? 

One of the participants actually did say "It's an interesting question whether we think spreading across the galaxy really is mankind's destiny."  What is this destiny you speak of?  Mankind has a destiny?  Who says?  Who gave us this destiny? If you think this isn't our destiny, on what basis do you think we have any destiny at all? These are frankly, the smartest and most tech-savvy and connected people in the world, and these questions don't even seem to occur to them. The discussion quickly reverts to the technical difficulties.  But even more worrisome, they seem to have some dim awareness that people might not consider this valuable, and always, always move immediately to "It's like the settling of the New World, or of Australia.  There were risks and not everyone made it, but it generally worked out." The question switches again from "is this morally justified" to "Will this eventually pay itself back?" or "But isn't this just a great adventure?" With the question of "why?" being quickly shuttled off to "You must just be objecting to the risk or the cost, and we just covered that."

The questions do not even occur to them.  For decades many of us have stroked our chins and said "All these teleological assumptions and moral justifications will have to be addressed sometime," but the reality is No they won't. It's not that these people aren't going to come to answers to these questions we find suspect.  It's that they aren't going to answer them at all.  They are going to Mars because they wanna. Any challenge gets diverted into irrelevant questions.

One interesting bit of this is to reflect this back to the exploration of the New World.  Those people and the settlers who came after are accused of many bad motives, such as seeking money or slaves.  There is some truth in that, probably.  There are also the justifications of Europeans trying to spread Christianity or Civilisation, which is now regarded as an especial colonialism and evil.  But I think we are overlooking what we see in front of us now in a similar situation. Some wanted adventure or to get rich, but most of the sailors and settlers just wanted a job. Shucking clams might have taken them instead if circumstances had been slightly different. Glory? Maybe a few. But mostly, people had no real reason at all. They just wanted to. Just like now.

Folks like us read CS Lewis and still debate what mankind's proper action should be,of the few hundred out of 8B of us.  I don't think it matters.  We can say until we are blue in the face that it is necessary to answer these values questions. I guess not.  All of these discussions are just spilling over with unquestioned values Does it change anything? They are going to do it anyway,and there will be some vague default answer for the underlying justification.  But mainly it's going to be "But we wanna."


james said...

I want to know what's over the next hill.

I'm not terribly worried about the moral aspects of meeting alien intelligences (or alien bacteria)--I think it too unlikely to worry about. The moral aspects of how we spend our money on space will get sorted out politically--or else by default via economic collapse.

"Destiny" and "saving the species": I think Lewis demolished those adequately.
"The galaxy"? That pesky "c" has a vote, and it voted no.

i just wanna.

Zachriel said...

james: That pesky "c" has a vote, and it voted no.

Assuming fusion power (snag a snowball in the Kuiper Belt) and sufficient resources to sustain a small population in interstellar space (or perhaps frozen embryos), there is no reason the descendants of humans (or their sentient robots) might not colonize the galaxy. Assuming a velocity of 1% of c, traveling 100 light-years to reach a new planet would take 1,000 years. Then assume the colony takes 1,000 years to mount new expeditions. The galaxy is 100,000 light-years across, so that's 1,000 jumps of 2,000 years each, or 2 million years.

Much of the habitable galaxy would be saturated with "spores" in the blink of the galactic eye.

james said...

True, though I'm less liable to posit portable fusion power than when I was young. Neutrons are no fun.
But I notice that humans have trouble maintaining a single policy for two presidential terms, and from keeping out of civil wars. A multi-generation spaceship wouldn't arrive with anything like the original purpose, assuming there were survivors at all.
Hibernation for that long is handwavium, and robots--a thousand years is a long time in a hostile environment. We have problems with computers lasting a dozen years.
Tiny probes on one-way trips might be able to send back information to remote descendants who may not care anymore.

Zachriel said...

james: True, though I'm less liable to posit portable fusion power than when I was young.

Consider the change in technology over the last thousand years. Now consider what might be possible over the next few thousand years. The only leap, and it's not such a leap, is controlled hydrogen fusion.

james: Neutrons are no fun.

No, but water is a very effective block to cosmic rays and radiation from reactors and even small impacts. Hollow out a large Kuiper Belt object, and you have a domicile that provides ample protection.

james: But I notice that humans have trouble maintaining a single policy for two presidential terms, and from keeping out of civil wars.

Sure, but Columbus made the trip.

james: A multi-generation spaceship wouldn't arrive with anything like the original purpose, assuming there were survivors at all.

When humans are up to mining and colonizing the Kuiper Belt, mounting multiple expeditions might not be such a reach. First, they explore and colonize the Oort Cloud, like Bartolomeu Dias.

james: Hibernation for that long is handwavium

Again, the technology is far from unreasonable over a few thousand years. People could very well be living completely independently inside of Kuiper Belt objects long before they attempt the crossing. There's nothing scientifically obscure about such a progression. It's just a matter of scale.

Cranberry said...

Pondering is diametrically opposed to exploring. The sorts of people who want to debate such things aren't the sorts of people who actually go out and DO things.

We have evidence of large-scale extinction events in Earth's past. As Fermi's Paradox has not been answered, I feel it would be a good thing if sentient life had a chance of continuing in the face of an asteroid strike, a supervolcano, or other extreme event.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Cranberry - and also James and Z - but why? Is the survival of Wonderful Us of any value? We will do it, so it doesn't matter if I think it a suspect endeavor. And yet - I still consider it a suspect endeavor. I look at my five granddaughters and project their values out forty years. Then I look at my church, my denomination, and my town and project their values out forty years.

Meh. My interest in their perseverance is positive, but not overwhelming.

james said...

For me it isn't about survival, it's about what's over the next hill. I'd rather see it myself, but I can be happy with seeing it by proxy, and if that has to mean robots instead of people, that's the way it goes.

If you're talking about survival--a tin can in a vacuum seems a lot more fragile than a planet. Even a million tin cans don't seem to give you better long-term odds in space than here. If a dino-zapper headed our way, I think we'd do better designing shelters and stockpiles here than trying to loft them. There'd be more resources easily available to the survivors--like air.

I refuse to worry about the Sun burning things up a few billion years hence. Sufficient unto the day and so on.

Cranberry said...

AVI, you are much more religious than I. I do think, though, that man's capacity for reason, empathy and storytelling is unique. It is a type of exaggerated modesty to claim mankind could disappear without a loss. Without man, there is no art, no music, no philosophy, no science, no debate, no poetry, no contemplation of the mysterious sky.

We are different than our ancestors, and our descendants will be different than we are. And that's ok. I would never choose to tell the bold and curious to turn back from the frontier.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: Is the survival of Wonderful Us of any value?

(People are funny that way.)