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.
Throughout history, our most treasured stories have been about heroes that do remarkable things and have extraordinary adventures. Human beings need heroes, for they personify the drive of people to accomplish the seemingly impossible, to see beyond the horizons of mundane human limitation. Heroes signify the very best that we can become — they are archetypes taken flesh and their exploits are idolized and mythologized. We require heroes and adventurers to make our dreams and visions real. By sending special people out into space we embody our shared (and frequently unconscious) vision of what we humans may one day become — citizens of the solar system, citizens of the Milky Way, citizens of the universe.
Yet, in a way, this is nothing new. Historians show us that geographic exploration has been an invigorating activity for civilizations throughout history. Whether it was the European exploration of the world, the massive Chinese expeditions along the coasts of Southeast Asia, India and Africa or the impressive reed boat voyages of the Polynesians and Micronesians in the vast Pacific, there has always been a strong correlation between geographic exploration and general cultural vitality. Arizona State University historian Stephen Pyne asserts, “Choosing to explore the solar system will not, by itself, assure us continued status as a world civilization. But choosing not to explore will ensure that we will not retain that stature.”
Clearly, while robots are important proxy precursors, preparing the way for astronaut visits to the planets and beyond, they should never be promoted as a replacement for humans as explorers of the universe.
Finally, the exploration and development of space is a catalyst, a driver, if you will, encouraging the next phase in the evolution of our species. As a consequence, many social scientists maintain that the establishment of permanent, self-sufficient, off-world presence is crucially important at this time in history. As humans move into interplanetary space, and learn to live permanently in synthetic habitats like the International Space Station, various types of biological selection will come into play that will advance human evolution.
One type of selection is referred to as the “founder effect.” Each movement outwards to face new and more difficult permanent living conditions will be accomplished by a very select group, people who possess the physiological and mental attributes to survive in ever more challenging conditions. These pioneers will combine the very best characteristics of humanity — good health, the ability to work well with other people, advanced systems consciousness (the understanding that they are part of an environmental system that must be properly cared for) and of course high intelligence — all characteristics we urgently need at this time in history to solve our global problems. Space colonization will have the effect of greatly accelerating the adoption of these characteristics as successive waves of humanity move out to settle the high frontier.
Finney maintains that “the space revolution is leading humanity into an entirely new and uncharted social realm.” He predicts that the act of settling space “will change humankind utterly and irreversibly.” As much as possible with the enormous distances involved, we will certainly want to remain in touch with our extraterrestrial cousins for they will become our teachers in ways we have yet to imagine.
Planets that are home to indigenous sentient life are like eggs nurturing the development of a chick inside. There is a limited window of opportunity between the time the chick is able to crack open its shell and the time when the yolk runs out. We are in such a window now. The international space program is our species’ collective chick chipping away at the shell. However, we need to understand that, just as the chick must marshal its energies at just the right time to break out of its first home to survive, the conditions and resources requisite for human space colonization will not last forever either. As earthly problems mount, we may soon lack the strength and resources to move into this new frontier. If we’re really serious about space exploration and development, then we must make it happen soon.