Why we should embrace the end of human spaceflight

If God wanted us to live in outer space, we wouldn't have inner ears

Topics: NASA,

Why we should embrace the end of human spaceflight

This week NASA is announcing where the soon-to-be-retired space shuttles will be displayed as museum relics. On April 19 the space shuttle Endeavor will be launched, on the penultimate mission of the program. The end of the space shuttle program will mean that the U.S. will have to rely on Russian rockets to deliver American astronauts to space, pending the development of private commercial spaceflight.

It is tempting to say that this is an outrage; that the effective end of the American manned spaceflight program is a national humiliation; that the program’s demise is yet another symbol of the gap in mentality between the confident, ambitious Kennedy-Johnson years and today’s solipsistic, penny-pinching America. It is tempting to say all that, but the temptation should be resisted.

The truth is that the American space program is flourishing. In recent years Mars has been visited by the Phoenix lander and the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. At the moment the Messenger probe is orbiting Mercury and the New Horizons probe is scheduled to pass Pluto in 2015. With the help of the orbiting Kepler space telescope, more than 500 planets in other solar systems have been identified. We live in the greatest age of cosmic exploration in history, even if the public pays little attention because there are no astronauts to engage in white-knuckle landings or to clown around for the cameras.

When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, many assumed that this was the first step toward permanent colonization of the moon and journeys by astronauts to other planets. From today’s perspective, though, the space race was like the races to the North Pole and the South Pole. Once explorers had reached those destinations, the world lost interest.

Another parallel is ocean exploration. Back in the 1960s, visions of colonies on the moon competed with plans for domed cities on the ocean floor that gave a new meaning to the phrase “real estate bubble.” Scientific exploration of the ocean depths continues to produce marvelous discoveries, like whole ecosystems that have evolved to take advantage of the heat and emissions of undersea volcanic vents. But the year 2000 came and went and millions of homeowners are “underwater” only in metaphor.

The parallel is not complete, of course. The poles and the ocean depths are far more hospitable to human life than near Earth orbit or the moon or Mars. Astronauts have learned that prolonged weightlessness does terrible things to the bones and the circulatory system. If God wanted us to live in outer space, we wouldn’t have balancing systems in our inner ears. When and if the science-fiction alternative of providing a simulacrum of gravity by spinning a spaceship or space station is tried, let us hope there will be a plentiful supply of barf bags.

The worst enemies of human spaceflight are its proponents. Their arguments are so weak that you keep waiting for the real, knock-down argument, which never comes.

The success of robot space probes has discredited the idea that machines are too stupid to do science in space. When that argument for human spaceflight collapses, those that remain are preposterous.

One is the assertion that life has always sought out new environments. Just as plants and animals moved from the seas to the land, it is said, so humanity must transcend the boundaries of the Earth.

This is just silly. Animals never leave a comfortable habitat for a harsh one, unless they are forced to. That is why we don’t see buffalo, raccoons and turtles marching off to Death Valley in great numbers to test their mettle, in a spirit of adventure.

Our vertebrate ancestors did not come ashore hundreds of millions of years ago because they decided to boldly go where no fish had gone before. Instead, generations of proto-amphibians in shallow water got stranded in separated ponds. The ones that were accidentally equipped to survive by desperately gulping air survived long enough to breed, and here we and our fellow land animals are. No lungfish congress would have voted to colonize dry land.

Equally silly is the comparison between the exploration of America by Europeans and the exploration of outer space. The Americas had native people to be enslaved by greedy Europeans, abundant resources and lots of pleasant places to live — to say nothing of breathable air and drinkable water. That’s why the European powers fought to control the Western Hemisphere, while ignoring the continent of Antarctica.

What about the argument that part of the human race needs to dwell somewhere other than on Earth, if humanity is to avoid extinction? In 500 million years the gradually warming sun may boil the oceans, and a few billion years later the sun will evolve into a red giant, incinerating or engulfing the Earth. Our descendants, if there are any, might consider relocating.

In the half-billion years until then, the chances of war, plague or global warming producing the total extinction of a species as numerous, widespread and versatile as humanity are pretty low. A sufficiently large asteroid or comet impact like the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs could do the job. But if a massive bolide threatened the Earth, we would send unmanned spacecraft, not Robert Duvall or Bruce Willis, to steer it away or destroy it.

In the event some other natural catastrophe — a supervolcano, a nearby supernova — rendered the surface of the Earth temporarily or permanently uninhabitable, it would be cheaper and easier to build and maintain underground bunkers than to use the same technology to do the same thing at vastly greater cost on the moon or other planets or in space stations. By the same token, if humanity had the technology to “terraform” the surface of Mars, it would have the power to make the ruined surface of a dead Earth habitable again, making the colonization of Mars unnecessary.

If there is no compelling argument for government-sponsored human spaceflight, there is no convincing rationale for private commercial spaceflight, either. The Robert Heinlein wing of science-fiction fandom has always combined Tea Party-style anti-statism with a love of big rockets. Now that the dead hand of the NASA bureaucracy is out of the way, will visionary billionaires inspired by Ayn Rand inaugurate a new age of commercial space travel for the masses?

Don’t count on it. There might be a niche market for a few space-planes or rockets to take bored plutocrats into orbit for a joy ride. But investors would be wiser to invest in private bathyscaphes offering tours of the Mariana Trench. After 9/11, can anyone believe that the world’s governments are going to foster a regime of laissez-faire toward private space shuttles that could be hijacked for suicide missions from orbit, or that might disintegrate over several time zones?

And then there is the problem noted by the late William F. Buckley Jr. Because of security precautions, he joked, the increase of speed with each new mode of transport is neutralized by waiting times. A plane is faster than a train or bus, but you have to get to the airport two hours in advance. A spaceplane might take you across the continent in an hour — but you would have to arrive at the spaceport the day before.

In the next few generations there will probably be more human spaceflight on a small scale. In time there might even be tiny teams of scientists in orbit, on the moon or other planets, like those in Antarctica. But for the foreseeable future space exploration will be undertaken mainly by machines that don’t horrify a watching world when they die slowly, with no hope of rescue.

The epitaph for the dream of human travel to outer space might be borrowed from Samuel Johnson’s verdict on a natural monument, the Giant’s Causeway, in Ireland. It is worth seeing, he said, but it is not worth going to see.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>