Why do we engage in space exploration?

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A review of diverse perspectives on space exploration and extraterrestrial life reveal fundamentally human hopes, fears and flaws

Since the dawn of civilization thousands of years ago, humans have looked to the skies. Archaeologists have found evidence of people from China, India, and Persia to Europe and Mesoamerica observing and contemplating the many stars and planets that fascinated them. We humans have also wondered about—and often hoped for—the existence of other intelligent life out there. Considering the large number of planets in the Milky Way and in billions of other galaxies, perhaps we are not alone, and maybe even while you are reading this, extraterrestrials could be looking in our direction through their telescopes or sending us interstellar telegrams. But if our galaxy teems with aliens, following Italian physicist Enrico Fermi’s persistent question, we must ask, “Where are they?”

Artist's depiction of a travel poster for a "Tatooine-like" planet orbiting two suns, recently discovered by NASA's Kepler spacecraft. (Courtesy: NASA)

Artist’s depiction of a travel poster for a “Tatooine-like” planet orbiting two suns, recently discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. (Courtesy: NASA)

Two recent pieces in the New Yorker and New York Times, as well as numerous books over the past couple years, motivate me to consider this and related questions too. Astronomers and astrophysicists around the world, including scientists working with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) and many others, have many varieties of telescopes and observatories on Earth and in space, just because we want to investigate and learn about our galactic neighborhood and beyond. We also attempt to communicate, like sending a message in a bottle, with the Golden Records aboard the Voyager spacecrafts, and we listen for alien attempts to contact us. In our lifetime, we have dreams of sending humans to Mars and to more distant planets. Why do we do this? We do it for many reasons, but especially because humans are explorers: we’re driven to see what’s out there and to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” As Carl Sagan put it in Cosmos, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”

Views of human space exploration

Elizabeth Kolbert reviews three recently published and forthcoming books by Chris Impey, an astronomer at the University of Arizona (where I used to work three years ago), Stephen Petranek, a journalist at Discover, and Erik Conway, a historian of science at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (She did not mention an award-winning book by Lee Billings, Five Billion Years of Solitude, which I will review in a later post.) She fault finds with the overoptimistic and possibly naïve “boosterism” of Impey and Petranek. “The notion that we could…hurl [humans]…into space, and that this would, to use Petranek’s formulation, constitute ‘our best hope,’ is either fantastically far-fetched or deeply depressing.” She asks, “Why is it that the same people who believe we can live off-Earth tend to believe we can’t live on it?”

Kolbert’s assessment has some merit. Astrophiles and space enthusiasts, of which I am one, sometimes seem to neglect Earth (and Earthlings) in all its wonder, marvels, complexity, brutality and messiness. But is the primary reason for exploring the universe that we can’t take care of ourselves on Earth? Mars should not be viewed as a backup plan but rather as one of many important steps toward better understanding our little corner of the galaxy. Furthermore, we should be clear that sending humans to Mars and more distant worlds is an incredibly complicated and dangerous prospect, with no guarantee of success. Even if the long distances could be traversed—at its closest, Mars comes by at least a staggering 50 million miles (80 million km) away, and then the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is about 25 trillion miles from us—future human outposts would face many obstacles. The popular novel by Andy Weir, The Martian, demonstrates only some of the extraordinary challenges of living beyond our home planet.

Overview of components of NASA's Journey to Mars program, which seeks to send humans to the red planet in the 2030s. (Credit: NASA)

Overview of components of NASA’s Journey to Mars program, which seeks to send humans to the red planet in the 2030s. (Credit: NASA)

Though Kolbert criticizes Conway’s dry writing style, she clearly sympathizes with his views. “If people ever do get to the red planet—an event that Conway…considers ‘unlikely’ in his lifetime—they’ll immediately wreck the place just by showing up…If people start rejiggering the atmosphere and thawing the [planet’s soil], so much the worse.” This line of criticism refers to flaws of geoengineering and of the human species itself. Many times in history, humans ventured out acting like explorers, and then became colonists and then colonialists, exploiting every region’s environment and inhabitants.

Note that Kolbert is a journalist with considerable experience writing about climate, ecology and biology, while astrophysics and space sciences require a stretch of her expertise. In her excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert argues provocatively that humans could be viewed as invasive species transforming the planet faster than other species can adapt, thereby constituting a danger to them. “As soon as humans started using [language], they pushed beyond the limits of [the] world.” I agree that humans must radically improve their relationship with nature and Earth itself, but this does not preclude space travel; on the contrary, the goal of exploring other worlds should be one aspect of our longer-term and larger-scale perspective of humanity’s place in the universe.

Views of extraterrestrial intelligence

Dennis Overbye, a science writer specializing in physics and astronomy, covers similar ground, but focuses more on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). He mentions the Drake Equation, named after the American astronomer Frank Drake, which quantifies our understanding of the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets with whom we might communicate. Both Drake and Sagan “stressed that a key unknown element in their equations was the average lifetime of technological civilizations.” If advanced species don’t survive very long, then the possibility of contact between overlapping civilizations becomes highly improbable. It would be unfortunate if similarly advanced civilizations, like Earthlings and Klingons, could never meet.

Overbye introduces the controversial University of Oxford philosopher, Nick Bostrom, who is rooting for us to fail in our search for ETs! “It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.”

Bostrom bases his argument on a concept he refers to as the Great Filter. Considering the likelihood of advanced civilizations, many conditions and criteria must be satisfied and steps must be taken before a planet in the “habitable zone” has a chance of harboring intelligent life. The planet probably must have the right kind of atmosphere and a significant amount of liquid water and some kind of possibly carbon-based building blocks of life, and after that, the alien species’ evolutionary developments could go in any direction, not necessarily in a direction that facilitates intelligence. In addition, asteroids, pandemics, or volcanic eruptions could wipe out this alien life before it got anywhere. In other words, myriad perils and difficulties filter out the planets, such that only a few might have species that survive and reach a level of social and technological advancement comparable to those of humans.

On the other hand, if we do find life on other planets and if intelligent extraterrestrial life is relatively ubiquitous, our lack of contact with them could mean that advanced civilizations have a short lifetime. Perhaps the Great Filter is ahead of us, “since there is no reason to think that we will be any luckier than other species.” Maybe nuclear war, climate change, or killer robots might wipe us out before we have the chance to explore the galaxy.

I am not convinced by Bostrom’s pessimism. Even if the Great Filter is ahead of us, implying that humans face more existential threats in the future than have been overcome in the past, this doesn’t mean that we are doomed. Humanity does have major problems with acknowledging large-scale impacts and long-term outlooks, but I hope we could learn to change before it is too late.

A more positive outlook

We have learned a lot about planets, stars, galaxies, black holes and the distant universe from our tiny vantage point. But we would be immodest and mistaken to brazenly presume that we’ve already figured out the rest of the universe. We really don’t know how many other “intelligent” species might be out there, and if so, how far they are, what level of evolution they’re at (if evolution is a linear process), or whether or how they might communicate with us. We should continue to discuss and examine these questions though.

While traveling to other planets will take a long time, in the meantime astronomers continue to make exciting discoveries of possibly “Earth-like” planets, such as Kepler-452b, an older bigger cousin to our world. It seems likely that the Earth has a very big family, with many cousins in the Milky Way alone.

So why do we engage in space exploration and why do we seek out extraterrestrial life? This question seems to transform into questions about who we are and how we view our role in the universe. I believe that humans are fundamentally explorers, not only in a scientific sense, and we have boundless curiosity and wonder about our planet and the universe we live in. Humans also explore the depths of the oceans and dense rainforests and they scour remote regions in arid deserts and frigid glaciers (while they still remain), just to see what they’re like and to look for and observe different lifeforms.

More importantly, even after tens of thousands of years of human existence, we are still exploring who we are, not just with scientific work by psychologists and sociologists but also with novelists, poets and philosophers. We still have much to learn. To quote from Q, a capricious yet occasionally wise Star Trek character, “That is the exploration that awaits you: not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence!”

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