Fifty years ago Saturday, more than half a billion people watched Neil Armstrong become the first human 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, if not ourselves personally, then at least vicariously through our astronaut proxies.
The most important reasons for the human expansion into space are not the standard things you hear all the time from the space agencies—the jobs, wealth creation, or even new science. It has more to do with human nature and the way we will change as we move into this new frontier. Dr. Charles Laughlin, emeritus professor of Carleton University’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology, said that these changes are so important that the establishment of a permanent, self-sufficient, human presence in space will become our most crucial activity over the next century.
This is not merely a science fiction-driven fantasy. 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. We need to look to the social sciences—anthropology, history, and psychology, for example—to properly understand this phenomenon.
Laughlin explained that the drive to engage in geographic exploration is an important part of us. It is a 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. American anthropologist Dr. Ben Finney labeled humans “the exploring animal” and maintained 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 under the ocean 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. It is clearly an extension of this drive that motivates our intense desire for a manned space program.
The idea that exploration is a genetic imperative isn’t surprising if you consider the survival advantages that an expansionary species has over one which never moves beyond a single ecosystem. That is one of the reasons Space X founder Elon Musk gives for his efforts to reduce the cost of space exploration to hopefully open up the cosmos to humans. Musk is afraid that one day there will be another mass extinction event and then the human race would end if all of us stayed here. Musk said, “We must preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a spacefaring civilization [and] extending life to other planets.”
Relying on robots is not enough. However useful they are for science, and preparing the way for us, robots will never replace red-blooded astronauts. Sharing adventures with other people has given us psychological benefits since our ancestors first told 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. Throughout history, our most treasured stories have been about heroes who do remarkable things and have extraordinary adventures. We love to talk about heroes. They inspire us, because they represent the drive to accomplish the seemingly impossible, to go beyond the horizons of mundane human limitations. By sending special people out into space we personify a shared 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 have shown 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.”
Finally, the exploration and development of space is a catalyst encouraging the next phase in the evolution of our species. Each movement outwards to face new and more difficult 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 accelerating the adoption of these characteristics as successive waves of humanity move out to settle the high frontier.
Finney maintained that “the space revolution is leading humanity into an entirely new and uncharted social realm.” He predicted 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.
Tom Harris is former aerospace engineer and an Ottawa-based science and technology writer and public speaker. He may be contacted at [email protected].