Space Exploration as a Human Enterprise II The Public Interest

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Direct scientific interest in space exploration and the practical consequences that can be imagined flowing from them are not the principal or even the most general interests that space exploration holds for the layman. There is today - in a time when old beliefs are withering - a kind of philosophical hunger, a need to know who we are and how we got here. There is an ongoing search, often unconscious, for a cosmic perspective for humanity. This can be seen in innumerable ways, but most clearly on the college campus. There, an enormous interest is apparent in a range of pseudoscientific or borderline-scientific topics - astrology, Scientology, the study of unidentified flying objects, investigation of the works of Immanuel Velikovsky, and even science-fiction superheroes - all of which represent an attempt, overwhelmingly unsuccessful in my view, to provide a cosmic perspective for mankind. Professor George Wald, of Harvard, is thinking of this longing for a cosmic perspective when he writes: "We have desperately to find our way back to human values. I would even say to religion. There is nothing supernatural, in my mind. Nature is my religion, and it's enough for me... What I mean is: We need some widely shared view of the place of Man in the Universe."

The most widely sold book in college communities from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Berkeley, California, in recent years was called The Whole Earth Catalog, which viewed itself as providing access to tools for the creation of cultural alternatives. What was striking was the number of works displayed in the Catalog that related to a scientific cosmic perspective. They ranged from the Hubble Atlas of Galaxies to flags and posters of Earth photography near full phase. The title of The Whole Earth Catalog derives from its founder's urge to see a photograph of our planet as a whole. The Fall 1970 issue expanded this perspective, showing a photograph of the whole Milky Way Galaxy.

There is a similar trend apparent in some modern art and in rock 'n' roll music: "Cosmo's Factory" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Starship" by the Jefferson Airplane, "Mr. Spaceman" and "CTA 102" by the Byrds, "Mr. Rocket Man" by Elton John, and many others.

Such interest is not restricted to the young. There is a tradition in the United States of public-subscription support of astronomy. Construction of entire observatories and salaries for staff have been paid for voluntarily by the local communities. Several million people visit planetariums in North America and Britain each year.

The current resurgence of interest in the ecology of the planet Earth is also connected with this longing for a cosmic perspective. Many of the leaders of the ecological movement in the United States were originally stimulated to action by photographs of Earth taken from space, pictures revealing a tiny, delicate, and fragile world, exquisitely sensitive to the depredations of man - a meadow in the middle of the sky.

As the results of space exploration and their accompanying new perspectives on Earth and its inhabitants permeate our society, they must, I believe, have consequences in literature and poetry, in the visual arts and music. The distinguished American physicist Richard Feynman writes: "It does no harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"1

1 Richard Feynman, Introduction to Physics, Vol. I, Addison Wesley, pp. 3-6.

But mere general exploration does not yet motivate pervasive public interest in space. For many, the rocks returned from the Moon were a great disappointment. They were seen as merely rocks. What role they might play in chronicling the days of creation of the Earth-Moon system has not yet been explained adequately to the public.

Where public interest in space is most apparent is in cosmology and in the search for extraterrestrial life, topics that strike resonant chords in a significant fraction of mankind. The fact that much more newspaper space is given to the most casual hypothesis on exobiology than to many of the most careful and important results in other areas is an accurate reflection of where public interest lies. The discovery of interstellar microwave lines of formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide has been widely described in the public press as connected, through a long set of linkages, to questions in biology.

While it is true that the average person thinks in terms of mild variants of human beings when he is asked to imagine extraterrestrial life, it is also true that interest even in Martian microbes is much larger than in many other areas of space exploration. The search for extraterrestrial life could be a keystone of public support for space experiments - experiments oriented both within and beyond the Solar System.

There are many possible viewpoints on the present and near-future costs of space science and astronomy. Because the annual costs of ground-based astronomy are only a few percent of the costs of the scientific space program, I will concentrate on the price of the latter. It is customary to compare expenditures on space to annual expenditures in the United States for ethyl alcohol or bubble gum or cosmetics. I personally find it more useful to compare the costs with those of the U. S. Department of Defense. Using a report of the government's General Accounting Office (the New York Times, July 19, 1970), we learn that the total anticipated cost of the Viking mission to land on Mars in 1976 is about half that of the cost overruns in the so-called Safeguard antiballistic missile system for fiscal year 1970. The cost of a Grand Tour exploration of all the planets in the outer Solar System (canceled for lack of funds) is comparable to the 1970 cost overruns on the Minuteman III system; the cost of a very large optical telescope in space, capable of definitive studies of the origins of the universe, is comparable to the 1970 cost overruns on the Minuteman II missile; and a major program of Earth resources satellites, involving several years of close inspection of the surface and weather of our planet, would cost approximately the fiscal year 1970 cost overruns on the P-3C aircraft. A decade-long program of systematic investigation of the entire Solar System would cost as much as the accounting mistakes on a single "defense" weapons system in a single year. The scientific space program is small change compared to the errors in the Department of Defense budget.

Another viewpoint worth considering is space exploration as entertainment. A Viking Mars-lander could be completely funded through the sale, to every American, of a single issue of a magazine, containing pictures taken on the surface of Mars by Viking. Photographs of the Earth, the Moon, the planets, and spiral and irregular galaxies are an appropriate and even characteristic art form of our age. Such novel and oddly moving photographs as the Lunar Orbiter image of the interior of the crater Copernicus and the Mariner 9 photography of the Martian volcanoes, windstreaks, moons, and polar icecaps speak both to a sense of wonder and to a sense of art. An unmanned roving vehicle on Mars could probably be supported by subscription television. A phonograph record of the output of a microphone on Mars, where there seems to be a great deal of acoustic energy, might have wide sales.

I do not wish here to broach the debate on manned vs. unmanned planetary exploration, except to stress again that there may be very good nonscientific reasons for sending men into space. There exist intermediate cases between manned and unmanned exploration, which we may very well see in the forthcoming decades. For example, there may be telepuppets, devices landed on another planet but fully controlled by an individual human being in orbit, all of whose senses are in a feedback loop with the device. It is also possible that planets with very hostile environments by terrestrial standards, or planets where there is a great danger of contamination by terrestrial micro-organisms, will be explored by men inside machines like enormous prosthetic devices, amplifying the sense perceptions and muscular abilities of the human operator.

Even apart from these hypothetical developments, it is already quite clear that the development of sophisticated devices for unmanned planetary exploration is organizing the same technology required for the production of useful robots on the Earth. An unmanned vehicle that lands on Mars by the early 1980s will very likely have the ability to sense its environment much more thoroughly than humans are able to, to rove over the landscape, to make both preprogrammed decisions and decisions based on information newly acquired. First cousins to such a robot, some mass-produced, would be extremely useful devices here on Earth. I am thinking in part of operations in inaccessible environments such as the abyssal floor of the ocean basins, but I am also thinking of industrial robots to free workers from repetitive and uninteresting tasks, and domestic robots to liberate the housekeeper from a life of drudgery.

The experience of space exploration gives no unique philosophy; to some extent, each group tends to see its own philosophical view reflected, and not always by the soundest logic: Nikita Khrushchev stressed that in the space flight of Yuri Gagarin no angels or other supernatural beings were detected; and, in almost perfect counterpoint, the Apollo 8 astronauts read from lunar orbit the Babylonian cosmogony enshrined in Genesis, Chapter 1, as if to reassure their American audience that the exploration of the Moon was not really in contradiction to anyone's religious beliefs. But it is striking how space exploration leads directly to religious and philosophical questions.

I believe that military control of manned space flight - in practice in the Soviet Union and a subject of current debate in the United States - is a step that supporters of peace should back. The military establishments of the United States and the Soviet Union are, I am afraid, establishments with vested interests in war. They are meticulously trained for war; in time of war, there are rapid promotions, increases in pay, and opportunities for valor that are absent in peacetime. Where eager readiness for warfare exists, the likelihood of intentional or accidental warfare becomes much greater. By virtue of their training and temperament, military men are often not interested in other sorts of gainful employment. There are few other ways of life with the perquisites of power of the military officer. If peace broke out, the officer corps, their services no longer as necessary, would be profoundly discomfited. Premier Khrushchev once attempted to cashier a large number of senior officers in the Red Army, putting them in charge of hydroelectric power stations and the like. This was not to their liking, and in something like a year most of them were back in their old jobs. In fact, the military establishments in the United States and the Soviet Union owe their jobs to each other, and there is a very real sense in which they form a natural alliance against the rest of us.

At the same time, there are enormous labor forces and huge electronics, missile, and chemical industries that have an equally strong vested interest in and maintain equally strong lobbies for the maintenance of the warfare state. Barring some awesomely atypical epidemic of reason, is there not some way that this powerful collection of vested interests could be moved toward more peaceful activities? Space exploration requires exactly this combination of talents and capabilities. It requires a large technical base in such areas as electronics, computer technology, precision machinery, and aerospace frames. It requires something very close to military organization to keep a large number of geographically dispersed enterprises moving in phase toward a common goal.

The history of the exploration of the Earth's surface has largely been a military history, in part because it is an appropriate application of military traditions of organization and personal valor. It is the other military traditions that pose a danger to us today. Perhaps the exploration of the Solar System is an alternative and honorable employment for the military and industrial vested interests. I can imagine a transition to an arrangement where a significant fraction of the career officer corps of both the United States and the U.S.S.R. is transferred to space exploration. At least in part because of their considerable abilities, a fair number of military officers are employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in activities with little or no military significance. And of course the vast majority of astronauts and cosmonauts have been military officers. This is surely all to the good: The more of them engaged up there, the less of them engaged down here.

Despite many NASA press releases, much of the space program and almost all of its space science and applications program are in the long run not gimmicky or parochial in perspective. Indeed, they share a community of philosophical, exploratory, and human interest with many segments of American society - even segments that are in strong mutual disagreement on many issues. The cost of space exploration seems very modest compared with its potential returns.

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[iflv Centuries more idvuiud [fuq our tdviliiaLkm, By Jan Jjrniberg.

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