Fear of a Red planet is just what we need

The space race was always a creature of the Cold War. With Communism gone, there’s nothing noble about our goals up there.


 

The news media reported last week that NASA’s robot rover Spirit, stuck in the Martian equivalent of a ditch, is still spinning its wheels in the deep powder like some suburban doofus trying to free his SUV from a snowbank.

NASA scientists have been working hard trying to figure out some way of rocking the space buggy free, and they hope to give this a shot in a few weeks. But in the meantime, the trapped robot explorer serves as a perfect metaphor for humanity’s entire extraterrestrial ambitions.

For space keeners, this should be a week of at least mild celebration. After six tries, the space shuttle Endeavour finally made it into orbit, on its mission to complete the construction of a Japanese-designed veranda that will house science experiments outside the pressurized space station. There are more humans in orbit than ever before, including two Canadians. Encouraging, no?

No. The mission comes framed against the attention given to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that saw humans bounce around for the first time on another world. And in light of what Armstrong and Aldrin accomplished, and the era of great exploration that everyone expected would follow, the baker’s dozen of astronauts spinning around in low orbit, still caught in the clutches of the earth’s gravitational pull, looks pretty pathetic. As Tom Wolfe, the prose-poet of America’s quest for the stars, put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity.”

But here we are, four decades gone, and the spacefaring dreams of humanity are dead and buried. Not only have there been no manned missions to Mars and no permanent moon bases, no human has so much as ventured out of orbit since 1972. It’s as if humanity, having learned to swim by being tossed right into the deep end, opted to spend the rest of the time by the pool clutching the edge.

For decades now, the “space program” has amounted to little more than strapping some humans to a tube, sending them roaring thuggishly up through the atmosphere, and—once finally free of the cloying wetness of air—stopping dead, only to whirl about the earth in the name of science. Imagine if Columbus, having brought the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria safely back from the new world, spent the rest of his career tacking back and forth in the harbour at Palos, studying seasickness or testing chronometers.

Of course there are loads of excuses for why we’ve spent the last four decades doing space doughnuts. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It’s slow. It’s cold. There’s no air. No gravity. And when they aren’t crashing, getting lost, forgetting to return phone calls, or getting stuck in space dust, robots can do whatever sciencey things we need done up there.

But we all know the real reason we abandoned space exploration: Communism failed, the Americans won, and history ended. John F. Kennedy did a good enough job wrapping the moon mission in a lot of “for all mankind” hokey-pokey, but that’s not the UN flag stuck in the dirt in the Sea of Tranquility. As the Lyndon Johnson character in The Right Stuff put it, “I for one do not go to bed at night by the light of a Communist moon.”

The space race, and all the hopes and fantasies it inspired, was always a creature of the Cold War, an exercise in superpower one-upmanship. That doesn’t mean the ideals it inspired were false or not worth pursuing, only that it is on this field of striving, the prideful struggle for recognition, that courage, honour, and daring find their home.

There is nothing noble or honourable about our ambitions in space these days, no serious pride to be taken in what we’re accomplishing. Putting together the space station is dangerous work, but big deal. So is working on an oil rig, and we don’t build monuments or sing hymns to oil rig workers.

It would be nice if the Chinese got more aggressive in space, especially if they were to make a serious go at Mars. Perhaps the fear of the red planet becoming a Red planet would help shake the Americans out of their orbital slumber. But it is not America that is the real problem here, nor is it about “the West.” It is the honour of all humanity that is on the line.

Because the odds are that some day, eventually, we’re going to be visited by an alien civilization. It may be next week, it may be in the year 12009, but over the near-eternity of time this galaxy is surely going to fill up with a buzzing curiosity of life. Intelligent races will rise who will look to the spiral arms of the Milky Way, wonder what’s around the next bend, and set out to take a look.

When they get here, what will they find? An intelligent but distracted species fussing with Facebooks and iPods and Xboxes while a great game unfolds over their heads. Indeed we may have missed our window of opportunity to leave earth; with all the developments in information technology, the appeal of moving in outer space fades in comparison to the easy amusements of virtual space.

But the shame of it all. On their way here the aliens will see the Spirit rover, stuck for millennia in the Martian mud. They will look around and see our footprint on the moon, no bigger than a baseball field. And they’ll point at us, galactic laughingstocks, the species that looked briefly to the stars and said, “no thanks.”


 

Fear of a Red planet is just what we need

  1. This is why NASA is retiring the shuttle program in favour of the new Constellation Program, with the goal of sending manned missions to the Moon again, with the ultimate goal of building capacity for a manned mission to Mars.

  2. Yup. This post about sums up my frustration with the purported space program. What a disappointment after the moon landing!

  3. Excellent piece, Andrew. For the sheer joy of a well-imagined hard-sf exploration of the very distant future, I enthusiastically recommend House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds:

    http://www.avclub.com/articles/house-of-suns,2904

  4. It is not that the Americans won, it is that the Russians lost… There is a very big difference.

  5. I blame it all on Hollywood: R2D2, Obi-Wan Kenobi et al, and the Big Screen Star Trek etc.

    Too much competition for your space entertainment/imagination/discovery time.

  6. Great piece and good points made. The spirit of exploration that motivated Amundsen and Scott seems to have gone dormant lately. They didn't need a bogeyman to get them off the map; they just wanted to see what was there.

    The last bit about why we ought to explore is nuts though. First of all, the odds of us encountering another species in the vastness of space are quite small. Secondly if the galaxy hasn't filled up with life over the near-eternity in which it's been in existence, it's no more likely to do so over the near-eternity coming up.

    No, the real reason to explore is because "Man by nature desires to know." We're rational beings (or at least some of us are), and we're better (and happier) creatures when we have data for the application of our reason. Therefore we must explore. Let's do it.

  7. Great piece and good points made. The spirit of exploration that motivated Amundsen and Scott seems to have gone dormant lately. They didn't need a bogeyman to get them off the map; they just wanted to see what was there.

    The last bit about why we ought to explore is nuts though. First of all, the odds of us encountering another species in the vastness of space are quite small. Secondly if the galaxy hasn't filled up with life over the near-eternity in which it's been in existence, it's no more likely to do so over the near-eternity coming up. Thirdly, even if we do encounter someone why should we care what they think of us? And fourthly, this boils down to the same bogeyman mentality that Communism once provided. Whether it's tyranny or aliens we're scared of, we shouldn't let fear dictate our actions.

    No, the real reason to explore is because "Man by nature desires to know." We're rational beings (or at least some of us are), and we're better (and happier) creatures when we have data for the application of our reason. Therefore we must explore. Let's do it.

  8. What we need is for private enterprise to start making advancements in space. The American, Russian and Chinese governments are proceeding at a snail's pace, and the first two are going to be facing hard choices soon about whether to continue funding their space programs, or divert money to putting out the deficit fires on Earth.

    If we could harness the profit motive for Space exploration, it could usher in a whole new era in the space age, and yield huge advancements in technology. We should remember that the profit motive was what motivated many great explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama. They weren't looking for "The New World", they were looking for a sea route to the East, so that they could make their fortunes trading spices.

    The most obvious business model for space companies would be tourism. Who wouldn't want to stay in a space hotel or visit the moon themselves? This is just one way of commercializing space, but there are many more out there, just waiting to be exploited by some bold entrepreneur.

    Its forward looking companies like Virgin Galactic that will take us to the next level in space, not tired government agencies like the ESA and NASA.

  9. Of course there are loads of excuses for why we've spent the last four decades doing space doughnuts. It's expensive. It's hard. It's slow. It's cold. There's no air. No gravity. And when they aren't crashing, getting lost, forgetting to return phone calls, or getting stuck in space dust, robots can do whatever sciencey things we need done up there.

    You are confusing "excuses" with "rational reasons." The Columbus comparison is just silly. The New World presented challenges to Western explorers, sure, but you could breathe, eat, bury your waste, and profit from being here.

    There is something far more noble about the hard work on an oil rig than the lame because-it-was-there justification of space travel.

    Show me a compelling reason for space travel. And be forewarned: any variation on the wouldn't-it-be-nice theme will fall very flat very fast.

    • There are many compelling reasons for space travel. There is money to be made and things to be learned.

  10. "…is still spinning its wheels in the deep powder like some suburban doofus trying to free his SUV from a snowbank."
    very nice.

    • what would you insert here for your ottawa citizen readers? or is it harmless.

  11. If Columbus had been asked to live underwater for 6 months to plant a flag he might of said no. Astronauts are learning to 'live' in space, not die heroic deaths. One step at a time before talking light years…

  12. I believe the reason we havn't carried manned space exploration "further" is we were never on the moon in the first place. The landings are no more provable or believable than the magic bullet. Watching concocted documentaries on the recent anniversary of the lunar landing are laughable with the rows of crew cut Nasa engineers earnestly scribbling pencil calculations while staring at pseudo computer screens not even connected to the room sized Commodore 64 down the hall. The description of the manual and unaided module landing with Neil Armstrong looking out the window with fuel dramatically low was particularly entertaining sounding more like some 60's main street cruisers looking for a Friday night parking spot for their '57 Chevy. Your column if not tongue in cheek seems to raise more questions about our supposed historic triumphs in space than about our recent lack of advancement, fatal disasters and minor accomplishments now often taking place within view of the naked earthbound eye. Please revisit this issue with the questioning insight you are known for.

  13. Because the odds are that some day, eventually, we're going to be visited by an alien civilization. It may be next week, it may be in the year 12009, but over the near-eternity of time this galaxy is surely going to fill up with a buzzing curiosity of life. Intelligent races will rise who will look to the spiral arms of the Milky Way, wonder what's around the next bend, and set out to take a look.

    Thanks for the info.

  14. The space race, and all the hopes and fantasies it inspired, was always a creature of the Cold War, an exercise in superpower one-upmanship. That doesn't mean the ideals it inspired were false or not worth pursuing, only that it is on this field of striving, the prideful struggle for recognition, that courage, honour, and daring find their home.