The Human Condition:

We Need a Grand Challenge – September 28, 2014

Apollo liftoff

Photo: NASA

When I was growing up, in fact all during my formative teenage years, I was conscious of a great national challenge: Put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Yes, everyone understood—even a bright child such as I understood—that the challenge was aimed at the Russians as another aspect of the Cold War. But that’s not how it generally felt.

When I sat in my ninth-grade classroom and heard the piped-in broadcast describing Alan Shepard’s first suborbital Mercury flight, there might have been some mention of Yuri Gagarin’s previous orbit. But the first American manned space mission wasn’t presented so much as a national race and never as any kind of military operation. It was the achievement of the logical first step toward longer missions that would be represented by the Gemini and Apollo flights. It was something our country was doing voluntarily in the interests of science and exploration.

The problem was, “Put a man on the Moon” had no natural corollary. We landed, we walked around, then drove around. We gathered rocks in the interests of geology and science. We took pictures, did goofy experiments like dropping feathers and driving golf balls, and left flags. But by the time I was out of college, everyone could see there wasn’t much point to doing any more such missions. We walked on the Moon. Hooray.

NASA took all that expertise and then changed direction. Instead of huge rockets with one-time-use components to boost us into orbit and beyond, they decided to build a space truck with the potential for reuse and an operational ceiling of about 500 vertical miles. Any satellite intended for an orbit higher than that needed its own booster package, stowed along with the satellite inside the cargo bay. The Space Shuttle was designed to support a continuous orbital presence, represented by satellite fleets, space telescopes, and space stations. The problem was that, while the vehicle itself was technically reusable, it just about had to be rebuilt for every mission. Going into space became a whole lot less sexy and still remained prohibitively expensive.1

Space and its exploration became just something we did, like building waterworks or highways. Satellites have created huge benefits for our everyday lives in communications, weather monitoring, and scientific research. Interplanetary probes are telling us more and more about the solar system. I’m not complaining, and indeed, everyone oohs and ahhs over the latest pictures from the Mars probes and the scientists’ speculations about the possibilities there of water and signs of extraterrestrial life. But the challenge is gone. Remote, automated, probe-based interplanetary exploration is no longer, in the words of President Kennedy, “something we choose to do because it is hard.” It’s interesting but not inspiring.

I grew up believing we had a future out among the stars. I wasn’t alone, because science fiction and the popular imagination have trended that way ever since the decade of the Moon launches. Television shows and movies like Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and finally Firefly have all promised us this future. But actually going to the stars, rather than play acting on studio sets with elaborate special effects, is not only too hard but too expensive, as well as dangerous. We dream of the stars, but we make no effort to actually go out there.

I can’t imagine growing up in the current national environment and popular culture. For a young person, this is a time without vision. For my ancestors, for my great-great-grandparents and on down through the generations, the vision was “Go west”—go to America, go beyond the mountains, go to Texas, go to California. Out there to the west was where things were bigger, opportunities were greater, and futures were waiting to be made. In my youth, the vision was “Go into space”—go to orbit, go to the Moon, go to Mars, build space stations and colonies, and step off for the stars. Up there is where danger calls, where the hard things are, and where the future will be made.

Today’s vision, I guess, is “Save the planet.” Stop building stuff, stop mining for metals, stop drilling for energy, stop planting new crops, stop personally using energy, reduce your footprint, take shallow breaths. The vision is not about going someplace and discovering its uniqueness and possibilities, but about surviving on a planet that is supposedly fragile, defenseless, horribly managed, badly mangled, and turning sour with our every breath. We can only survive, can only sustain ourselves, if we draw back, turn inward, and be very, very careful. Sit quietly on the couch, play your video games, and watch actors on television pretend to explore out among the stars.

That vision won’t save us. I don’t say the Earth is running out of resources. We have abundant energy supplies, food potential, clean recycled water, and an active air-cleaning system to last us indefinitely on this planet. Clever use of our technology will make quite a nice little life for our descendants for as long as anyone now living would care. But the human psyche, which developed over a hundred thousand or a million years of endless wandering, did not evolve to settle down and take shallow breaths. We walked out of Africa. We crossed land bridges. When we came to oceans with no obvious way across, we built canoes, then boats, then ships. We became seafarers. We put our imprint on the continents. We climbed every mountain, pushed into every swamp and desert, paddled up every river, probed every cave we ever discovered. We are a restless, seeking species. We don’t live for mere survival. We want to see new places, learn new things, and take up new challenges.

Making a sustainable nest on Earth won’t save us in the long run, either. I believe the universe teams with life, and that intelligent life will eventually harness the mysteries of mathematics, the supplies of energy latent in space and time, and the mechanics of gravity to thrust itself out among the stars. When such life happens upon our little green planet with its warm skies and liquid seas, the encounter will go one of two ways. If we have bases on other Sol System planets and moons, a thriving exploratory arm, and our own starships, those intelligent visitors will likely see us as something similar to themselves. They may be friendly or hostile, but they will know they’re dealing with potential equals. But if we are living modestly on just the skin of this one planet, then despite all our protestations of intelligence and our attempts at communication, they will likely treat us as a population of bright, chittering squirrels. We might be interesting creatures, but no one to whom the space explorers would feel compelled to yield ground.

And if the extraterrestrials don’t get us, then our own solar system surely will. This planet experiences a regular rain of rocks and has endured a number of mass extinctions. Where fire from above doesn’t annihilate us, the orbital peculiarities and periodic ice ages of this planet are still a threat. People living quietly, just hoping to survive, on the skin of the planet will not be in any position to deal with these dangers. Plan small, breathe shallow—and die out in the long run. That may be what some human idealists want: to eliminate this pesky species with its untidy, rambunctious habits. But that’s not the future which a hundred thousand or a million years of wandering, wondering, and developing our huge brains and our invasive technologies have prepared for us.

We have to go on, go outward, and establish our presence in space. People talk about a mission to Mars. Well and good. But if it’s just to walk around and plant a flag, then please don’t bother. We’ll spend a few terabucks getting there, then forget it all and sink back into watching television. Mars looks like a choice because it is a whole planet and has an atmosphere, but the planet is small and hostile, the atmosphere thin and unbreathable.2 We have a small, hostile world a lot closer to home for us to practice on—the Moon. I believe we should build bases there, establish a presence, create the technologies that will let us live and thrive anywhere in space, and then step off for the other potentially habitable planets and moons in this solar system.

Just as the trappers and traders who explored the western expanses of North America had to build forts and trading posts on the plains and along the rivers, we will need to build bases outside the Earth’s atmosphere: space stations in planetary orbit, on the Moon, and at the stable LaGrange points in between. These habitats will build up our knowledge and expertise about dealing with space’s radical environment and its challenges. We have learned a lot from the Moon missions, the Space Shuttle, our satellite systems, our participation in the International Space Station, and our robot probes. But our knowledge of what it means to be a spacefarer is about where our ancestors were when they faced the broad ocean and hollowed out their first log canoes. We have a long way to go.

We need to stop spending money on stunts, on flag planting and extraplanetary walkabouts, and start making a life for humanity out among the stars. It’s where we’ll be going eventually. We really ought to start getting there.

1. To say nothing about dangerous. We lost two crews—first aboard Challenger during takeoff and then with Columbia during reentry—for simple mechanical reasons that we eventually fixed. But each time we nearly lost our nerve about going into space. We also lost a complete Apollo crew in a pad fire early in the program, but that didn’t stop the Moon launches. What we didn’t have with the Space Shuttle program was any feeling of national resolve.

2. Mars’s atmosphere is made up mostly of the heavy gas carbon dioxide, because the pull of the planet’s gravity is too small to hold lighter gases like oxygen and nitrogen. Mars’s atmospheric pressure is about one percent that of Earth, which makes it a high-grade vacuum. Take an airplane up to about 70,000 feet, open a window, and you’d be breathing the equivalent Mars atmosphere—except it would still be mostly nitrogen and oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. Mars’s planetary core is dead, so it has no magnetosphere, which means the solar wind lashes the planet with hard radiation. Building a colony on Mars would not be any simpler than building one on the Moon or at the top of Mount Everest—except that either of those places is a whole lot closer with much lower logistical costs.