Thursday, March 18, 2010

Losing Heart. Losing the Future of the Species.

I'm just finished re-reading, after something like 10 years, Voyagers, a 'hard SF' novel by Ben Bova. Right now I'm into Voyagers II: The Alien Within, also after a similarly long time, and that will be follows sometime soon, when it's back in print, Voyagers III, which I've never read. I think I might pass up Voyagers IV, which Bova has recently written, and which, I suspect, will depress me too much—partially because from the synopses I've read it pretty much parallels, emerging from of the the Greats of science fiction, the malaise I'm about to discuss.

In Voyagers, I found the following quote from one of the greatest pioneers of rocket science:

The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Yes, there was a time when the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation—half an hour of big bangs and we're all goners...that kind of thing—but at the same time there was something worthy of being called a 'space programme'; instead of the abortion of one that we have right now, where we just put more and more of what eventually end up as 'space junk' into orbit, making the near-Earth 'space' a very dangerous place indeed.

A far cry from today, where missions, and especially manned ones, that go beyond the orbit of the next piece of orbiting space-junk are dead in the water—and they may indeed be dead forever, because something's gone out of us; and by the time it might come back, which may be when humanity's survival situation becomes terminal, it'll be too late to do anything about it. Ship's sailed for good. Forever. Certainly for this phase of what we think of as 'civilization'.

There is a segment of the populace that will actively cheer this trend. There were many, even in the heady pre-Moonlanding days, who were vociferously decrying the whole space-effort as a colossal and irresponsible waste of money. Better to feed the hungry, build hospitals, improve living conditions, etc. All noble goals, without a doubt. For a while the US and Soviet governments were able to forge ahead with their programmes despite this, mainly because it served to further 'national pride'. That was the bottom line—who has the biggest dick and the best technology—and all the 'science' stuff was just rationalization. And when the US landed men on the moon, the nation was ecstatic. Hell, the world was.

Motives have changed. The International Space Station was not built for reasons of national prestige, but because of the desire to create a concrete example of 'international cooperation in space', which presumably helps to further that greatest goal of them all: WORLD PEACE. That's like the desirable counterpart to the undesirable major issue: GLOBAL WARMING.

Again, nobody in their right mind would deny that it would be desirable if we all lived in peace with each other—or would it? Actually, the issue is by no means clear, and there are very cogent reasons to be acutely afraid of a situation of universal peace; mainly because the preconditions for such a state would seem to imply that we have to surrender so much of our 'humanity' that we would effectively cease to be human. We might also lose our desire to survive, as so grimly suggested in the movie Serenity. Some people would possibly welcome such a state of affairs, where nature can revert to its raw state; which, if I recall rightly, is just about as brutal and bloody as it gets. Nice job!

What's happened between the 60s and now, and why? It's complicated, of course. But the trend, at least in Western societies, was and is to tone down their national pride much more than was common, and so the motivation to spend on big-ticket items to glorify one's nation has decreased to the point where even, or maybe especially, the US, simply hasn't got the will anymore to spend significant amounts on 'space travel' efforts. Any party advocating it, any presidential candidate, would be finished the moment the suggestion was broached. It's all about 'the eehhcaunomy' and problems on the ground. And every dollar that's expended in 'space' needs to have a ground-based justification, be it military, communications related or having to do with monitoring weather, 'security' (meaning spying on people), and whatever pathetic remnants of 'scientific' reasons remain.

We've turned our faces away from the stars and toward the ground. We can't see the stars anymore—neither in our imaginations, nor in reality, in the light pollution of our cities. And, one could argue, why should it be different? Our problems are down here. If we want to survive, we need to clean up our environment and solve population and social problems, stop wars, feed the hungry, help those in need, make the world a better place—whatever 'better' happens to mean, depending on the current social paradigms. This is so reasonable that only lunatics would argue otherwise.

There is, of course, one excellent reason for looking up, and looking up in fear and with a sense of foreboding, and that's the possibility that some nasty big object will come along and wipe us out. Detecting something like that coming at you is just a prerequisite for even starting any action. And that's all we're doing today. But real 'action', a response to a threat that's considerably more unforgiving than creeping Global Warming, would require technological capability and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on something that's entirely a 'maybe'.

Does anybody really talk or think about this? Apart from a couple of movies, Deep Impact and Armageddon, nobody has recently really said much about it—and neither of the movies was considered anything more than entertainment. Well...they weren't. They weren't even 'great' movies, though I enjoyed both. But both at least tackled the notion that we might damn well do something about being annihilated; not just curl up into fetal ball and wait to be wiped out.

But in reality that's basically what we'll doing. That's all we can do, because we've got nothing to offer in terms of a defense. We don't because we're not willing to consider the significance of the 'maybe', which is not really a 'what if' kind of 'maybe' but 'what when'. We should be very, very afraid of this. Much more than we should ever be afraid of Global Warming. In fact, what the world has been unwilling to accept is that it's just as frightening as living under the shadow of likely nuclear annihilation. Just because it comes from space—and that means 'deep space'—doesn't mean it's not going to terminate our species and just about every other within less time that it would have taken to make us extinct in a world-wide nuclear war.

Thing is, if we're not going to look up in fear, as humans did once upon a time, what's the likelihood that we'll look up in hope and yearning? What's the chance that, though our cradle is being systematically destroyed by the infants inside it, we will take heed of Tsiolkovky's dictum, quoted near the beginning of this blog? If we exclude a tiny minority, one without any political or social clout, we're talking about a big fat ZERO. Null. Nada. Nix. Nothing.

Besides, how is one going to get billions of people enthusiastic about spending billions of dollars on a project that will not benefit them personally in any way, and never mind 'spin-offs'. Nobody really gets great motivation out of the prospect of those. But sending even a few thousands of astronauts, explorers, scientists or colonists into space—if we ever get to those kinds of numbers!—still means that only one in a million will ever leave the planet, while the rest are stuck here to choke in the species' cradle's progressively degrading environment. Why should anybody care? To preserve the species? Who gives a shit about the species if one's family can't be preserved? Seriously, would you?

But he have to go, with or, as it likely, without 'popular' support. And there's only one solution to this problem: make the enterprise independent of governments and taxpayers. Meaning find a reason to make space exploration attractive to private enterprise; and that means a reason must be found to make it profitable, despite the likely investment of billions and billions of dollars in R&D. Because R&D it will need, to develop, above all, suitable energy sources, propulsion and effective radiation protection measures. These three are the Achilles Heels of the whole enterprise. Solve them and you can build huge spaceships that will carry large numbers of the willing into 'deep' space, to the planets of our Solar System and beyond.

Motivating corporations or 'private' individuals—those who have obscene amounts of resources—into sinking the money into the enterprise would be difficult, of course. As far as private individuals are concerned, they're mostly trying to find a way into heaven after spending most of their lives accumulating wealth, usually to the detriment of others, and have found their social conscience, or at least try to convince the themselves, the world and their God that they have.

I think that good old greed is probably still the best motivator. That and power. Power derived from wealth and economic influence. The 'Vanguard' corporation in Bova's Voyager series is a good example: richer than many nations, even those in the 'developed' world, profiting immensely from 'alien' technology they managed to acquire from the visitor from far away, who happened to pass through our solar system. Snagging that alien vessel and its mummified occupant was an excellent motivation to launch a serious space-enterprise. Seems to me like we need something like that.

Either that or, of course, technology that makes it 'easy' to go up there and explore. Because right now the ratio of return over investment is so much smaller than unity that nobody'll want to look at it seriously. Meaning we'd have to rely on wealthy idealists. Not a reliable base on which to build one's hopes for the preservation of the species.


Alex said...

Space Odyssey 2061 is about privatising space exploration, or tourism anyway. And the tycoon's personal space craft was powered by cold fusion; speaking of which, have you seen this : ?

Till said...

Thank you for this. I wasn't aware of 2061, mainly because I was getting bored by A C Clarke's SF. That kind of stuff sometimes happens. Right now I find Ben Bova much more readable.

About the link: no, I wasn't aware of the current state of Cold Fusion, but this is truly fascinating.

I owe you one, lady!