Wednesday, February 10, 2010

OK, I’m Compelled Already

The New York Times just featured a clutch of invited essays on the question “Is Manned Spaceflight Obsolete?” First of all, the phrase is odd: obsolescence implies the appearance of a better alternative for something that was once adequate for some real purpose, and it’s not clear that “manned spaceflight” (why not the gender-neutral “human spaceflight”?) ever was a good or useful thing—though it has sometimes, without doubt, been an intensely exciting thing.

But verbal quibbles aside, let’s look at one of the Times’s pro-spaceflight essays, by Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI institute—the folks who scan radio waves from space for signs of intelligence. (SETI, by the way, is a good project that has nothing to do with human spaceflight.) Shostak sets out to tell us “Why Hominids and Space Go Together.” He writes that “There are good – even compelling – reasons for a human presence in space.”

Boy—if these are the compelling reasons, the debate is over.

(1) “When it comes to looking for life on Mars, it’s been said that a human explorer could survey that world’s rusty landscape at least 10 times faster than a rover. If we want to know if life is a miracle or merely a cosmic commonplace, human exploration may be essential.”

Shostak’s putative tenfold acceleration would only happen once humans got to Mars, which would take about 10 times longer to accomplish than getting a team of very good robots there while costing 10–100 times more. Hmm. Also, Shostak equates getting the science faster with getting it period, a non sequitur. Even if sending humans were a faster way to get the science, that wouldn’t imply it was the only way. Shostak’s illogic reveals that the whole argument is a pretext. He doesn’t really want to send people to Mars to do faster science there, and might as well admit it.

(2) “Second, we are living on a world with limited real estate and finite resources. Both are expected to become critically stretched within a century. Frankly, homo sapiens will be a flash in the pan if we don’t get some members of our species off the planet.”

In other words, 99.99% of us are doomed to drown in our own excrement, so a lucky few should be sent forth in trillion-dollar lifeboats. This scenario is low-grade science fiction, not serious policy, especially given that if Earth society collapsed, independent long-term survival of Shostak’s projected colonies would be impossible. It takes an entire industrial economy to manufacture every single one of the thousands of touchy widgets essential to any space vehicle or dwelling. In space, no one can hear you scream for replacement parts. Even if we built Shostak’s space lifeboats, they would be roped firmly to our global Titanic.

(3) “Third, there’s the enormous appeal of space flight to young people. Ask any kid what interests them more: constructing autonomous rovers or going to Mars? The answer is obvious and so is the implication for NASA’s future.”

This is circular: We need to put people in space so that kids will grow up psyched to to work for the organization that puts people in space. Not to mention the silliness of implying that NASA will continue to have an adequate hiring pool only if it pulls off an endless string of the most dramatic human spaceflight stunts imaginable. If such super-lures were really needed to suction bright engineers out of the educational system, our civilization would collapse: almost all real-life engineering work is unglamorous in the extreme compared to any space project, including a robotic one. (Ask the people who worked on Voyager if they found it boring.) Finally, the belief that we should shape national policy around what most excites 10-year-olds would lead to some very bizarre outcomes, if consistently applied. Again, Shostak doesn’t mean it.

(4) “And finally, there’s this: we need a frontier. Some part of each of us wants to ‘boldly go’, to explore and experience the unknown. The claim that stepping across the threshold of the unknown is too costly or too dangerous wouldn’t have impressed Magellan or Lindbergh.”

Even if it were true that we need a literal, physical frontier to be a healthy culture, which it isn’t, human space travelers never have and never will explore anything “unknown” because they aren’t going anywhere that hasn’t been thoroughly mapped by robots first. No astronautic boot is ever going to touch any lunar or planetary landscape that has not already been photographed at 1-meter resolution from orbit—that’s a mission-planning basic. The real explorers are therefore going to remain robots whether we send people in their wake or not. “Magellan”? Exactly — a robotic NASA probe, launched in 1989, whose radar revealed the surface of cloud-shrouded, kiln-hot Venus as no human space traveler ever could have or ever will, and did so for about half the net cost of a single Shuttle trip to nowhere.

The real modern Magellan . . .
(note human figure lower left)

. . . and a glimpse of what it found
(shield volcanoes on Venus, imaged
area about 300 miles across):

Shostak’s “most compelling” reasons compel us only to recognize that the case for human spaceflight consists entirely of sentiments derived from a rather crude and cruel species of science fiction. When Worlds Collide is a fun flick, and I worshipped it when I was 10, but you can’t build a life on lifeboat fantasies.

The advocates of space settlement say they want to save the human race, but actually they’re writing it off. What they most yearn for, I think, is simplification: no more chaotic, shit-besmeared billions, no more unpredictable Earth, but a cozy cadre of like-minded space fans thinking noble thoughts enwombed in an artificial environment as mysterious and unmanageable as the inside of a soup can. Even if it were possible, it would be Hell.