Like most people who read and write science fiction, I would love to go into space. At my age and level of income, that isn’t likely ever going to happen but it’s worth thinking about. The venture into space, on a personal level, is really nothing more than the desire for an adventure that you can’t get anywhere else.
Sure, you can simulate the feeling of weightlessness in a diving plane or even in the moments of free fall during a bungee jump but you can’t escape the knowledge that you are really some place ordinary – within reach. Maybe that is the glamour of space travel – it is something beyond our grasp if not our imagination.
Beyond the personal, why do we want or, more precisely, need to go to space. It’s interesting to talk to people of different ages about the subject. Old guys like me can’t imagine the point of only sending out robots – there is nothing like the actual human experience of going to space or to another planet. Younger people seem to think robots are good enough – perhaps they think their phones are actually smart and not fairly dumb bits of programing that can do neat things but can’t think or innovate or deal with the unpredictable. That requires a human brain and likely will continue to do so for a long time to come. Artificial intelligence, like fusion power, is just twenty years away and always will be.
Going to space is not about adventure, it is about extending the range of human knowledge and understanding. It is also an important insurance policy. We have all our eggs in one basket right now and while I believe we can figure out a way that we don’t destroy our increasingly fragile planet – by willful actions or benign greedy neglect – it is a risk. And when there is risk we should take out insurance.
Space is that policy. It gives us a second chance. The trouble with space is that it is a risk in and of itself. It is a big risk with only a limited likelihood of return. That’s why it won’t be accomplished by entrepreneurs – no return. Which is exactly what may happen to the first mission to mars. They won’t come back. You can’t compare this to settlement of Australia or North America by Europeans. The first voyages were funded by governments for the purpose of extending their power and reach. Only when it was clear that you could come back did private investors get involved.
But space is big and expensive to go to – though not nearly as expensive as say, waging war in Iraq – and probably needs an international effort to get us there. Can we do that? I can only hope.
And that’s ten minutes.