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Manned Space Exploration Is Crucial for Our Future

Robots are important, but not enough.

by
Tom Harris and Dr. Charles Laughlin

Bio

July 21, 2014 - 2:29 pm
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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.

Top Rated Comments   
Much as I'd like to see us go, I think our current government and its enabling culture will negate any significant effort. We need to clean house before we can even consider any elective great crusade of exploration.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (13)
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Fine, just so long as you fund your misguided religious impulse out of your own pocket.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Around 1-2 million years ago, they began to expand into new habitats and gradually migrated into Europe and Asia..." If this is true and we're all a bunch of apes, then there is no reason to explore at all.

We are created on purpose for a purpose and THAT is why we want to explore. Not because we're a big cosmic joke engaged in a meaningless exercise in energy transfer.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
It is very difficult to convince people on our necessity of exploring and establishing new limits for our goals. It is difficult to convince people that their tax dollars will mean great opportunities in the future. I see the exploration in Universe as a possible gamechanger on the global scale. While we cannot agree on what is important for our own planet - wars, famine, or climate change [http://jaybanks.ca/vancouver-blog/2014/04/23/climate-change-flooding/].
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
we (humans) move constantly forward, yes. concur.

we send the best and brightest out to lead the way? notsofast. if you will turn on your t.v. and watch for just a few moments you will see a so called 'leader of the free world' who is neither. not even close.

banal nailed this one.

telling lies and advocating for mediocrity and all inclusiveness at any cost isn't moving forward in the stretch. its called socialism here or communism or some other name over there. the final, eventual result is always the same, abysmal failure, and the cost paid is well documented in the blood of its many, many failures. the eventual excuse is always 'if only we had done so and so it would have worked'.

going into space is hard. 7 years (90's) I spent keeping my assigned systems doing their part in support of our efforts. I knew the old timers who went to the moon. I saw them on the walls in cocoa beach bars, and listened to their stories about their successes and failures over beers. their successes were all around me and out on the launch pads (manned and unmanned) lifting off w/ a forced regularity and remarkable success rate. most people don't realize that unmanned launches in the country have never stopped. we have just slowed down while the reins change hands (gov. to private). a good, necessary and perhaps overdue thing. who can say? I predict humans will continue into space and accelerate the pace outward once the cobwebs clear from our collective brains. the reward$ will be many. to keep the price affordable we will need robotics to supplement our efforts in a big way. maybe the use of artificial intelligence can supplement where and when we fall short.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here is a TV interview I just did on this topic:

http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/featured/prime-time/867432237001/bring-back-the-space-race/3689669713001

Was also interviewed on radio - the first one here (link changes in 10 hours): http://devel.autopod.ca/chum/20/podcasts/

Tom Harris
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
No. A thousand times no.

Fund this nonsense out of your own wallet. Get your grasping mitts out of my wallet.

Not what I want my government to spend my tax dollars on.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
We did not address who should fund it, just that it is important to do.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
These advocates of manned space exploration like to quote the teaser line from Star Trek: "To boldly go where no one has gone before."

But they omit the immediately preceding teaser line:

"To seek out new life and new civilizations."

NOT "to sample some rocks from lifeless worlds."

Star Trek and Star Wars were popular because they depicted a Galaxy filled with *life* and *alien civilizations*. It's alien life that creates the drama, the conflict, the adventure, and even the romance in such sci-fi.

Where would Star Trek be without Vulcans and Klingons?

Ordinary folks won't be interested in space exploration unless we can actually find something out there besides lifeless rocks.

If there truly were life under the Europan ice, for example, that would really jump-start interest in space exploration. Because the independent appearance of life on two separate worlds in the same solar system suggests that there is life everywhere in the galaxy.

But PLEASE, no more journeys to lifeless worlds to pick up some rocks. Robots can do that. And it's not even clear if robots need to do that either.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
"something out there besides lifeless rocks."

There are whole mountain ranges of speculation about the existence of life elsewhere.

No evidence, of course, that that doesn't stop the speculation machine from being treated as Absolute Fact by many.

12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
Much as I'd like to see us go, I think our current government and its enabling culture will negate any significant effort. We need to clean house before we can even consider any elective great crusade of exploration.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
But if it is more of a spiritual quest, can we really trust the government with the task? OTOH can anyone but the government really do it?

It just may be that the cold, hard facts of the matter are that it is fiercely expensive and has virtually no near-term returns and it may take a century before we have self-sustaining colonies on the Moon, or Mars, or on asteroids or comets, and more centuries before they could sustain the race independent of Earth. That's a long and very expensive spiritual quest. I'm all for it, but - just sayin'.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
Its not just exploring, but moving out there, living there, raising a family there and, in the end, dying there and leaving grandchildren to continue.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
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