Forty-five years ago yesterday, more than a half-billion people watched Neil Armstrong become the first human being to set foot on another celestial body. Necessary and impressive though they are, no robotic explorer could ever generate so much attention. We want to go. People yearn to explore space and the planets, if not ourselves personally, at least vicariously through our astronaut proxies.
This is not merely a science fiction-driven fantasy (although science fiction helps us flesh out our aspirations and better envision alternative possible futures). Manned space exploration satisfies a basic human drive to engage in geographic exploration in a way no other activity does in today’s world. The fact that Star Trek became a global phenomenon suggests that there is far more to the popular appeal to “boldly go where no one has gone before” than most people understand. Indeed, the drive to explore is an important characteristic of the way in which the higher orders of the human nervous system function — the awareness of new physical frontiers is essential to the health of humanity. University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney labels humans “the exploring animal” and maintains that a withdrawal from the exploration and development of space would put the brakes on our cultural and intellectual advancement. A quick look at the history of our species shows why satisfying this urge is a crucial part of what it means to be fully human.
The ancestors of modern human beings began as a population of only a few hundred thousand individuals in the tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Around 1-2 million years ago, they began to expand into new habitats and gradually migrated into Europe and Asia, and from there into Australia, Oceania, the New World and, eventually, as modern human beings, even to Antarctica. And the migration did not stop there. People have now lived in “colonies” under the sea in submarines and research stations, briefly on the moon, and in low Earth orbit.
In other words, it is in our very nature to explore and expand outwards into available spaces. And it is clearly an extension of this drive that motivates our intense desire for a manned space program. Relying only upon unmanned probes and robots, however necessary these technologies may be for fully discerning the scientific picture of the universe, is unsatisfying to the human spirit, and has the effect of blunting people’s interest in space exploration.
The reason for this is simple. Human consciousness tends to lose awareness of technologies as long as they are doing their job. We remain cognizant only of the effects of the technologies. For example, we marvel at the beautiful images produced by the Hubble telescope, but lose any awareness of the telescope itself. Only when some of our kind, our fellow humans beings, are out there working with the technologies do we tend to remain aware of the new environment of space. People identify with astronauts, who, in a very real psychological and spiritual sense, take us with them when they go. Robots and other machines are not fulfilling substitutes.
Not surprisingly, science reporters therefore assign human attributes to robotic space explorers whenever possible. For example, commentators told us that the Mars rover Spirit was ”sending postcards to Earth,” “talking” to the orbital craft, “sleeping” at night and “waking up” to the Beatles’ tune “Good Morning, Good Morning.” The fact that mission controllers did indeed use music to activate the craft and spoke of it as being “healthy,” instead of merely “operational,” suggest that they too are trying to anthropomorphize the spacecraft to augment their own and the public’s attachment to their creation. The fact that the rover’s robotic arm moved in much the same way as a human arm with an elbow and wrist and the mast-mounted stereoscopic cameras are about the height of an adult’s eyes suggests that even the spacecraft’s designers were influenced by basic human anatomical structure.
But, no matter how human-like we perceive them to be, robots will never replace red-blooded astronauts. Sharing adventures vicariously with other people has been a psychological balancing factor since our ancestors began telling stories around the fire. Even today, tales of exploration by human adventurers tend to balance the often negative mind states generated by people facing the stresses and frustrations of daily life in a modern technocratic society.