Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The undiscover'd country

On Radio 4's Home Planet today, there was a discussion of the new interest in space exploration and in voyages to the moon and to Mars. All of which was interesting. But it finished with one of the guests (I'm not sure which) saying something to the effect of, "But personally, I think that, instead of spending billions of dollars going to Mars, we should sort out planet Earth first."

This is an old canard; it has accompanied the space program from the start. I dislike it for many reasons. Without wishing to quibble over language, but the very idea of "sorting out planet Earth" is a totalitarian illusion. It will never happen, and all action aimed at such grand heights is doomed, not only to failure, but to sow much misery in its wake.

Implicit in this view is also the childish notion that environmental change, or poverty, are 'problems' that are capable of a 'solution', and that spending billions of dollars of them will bring about that solution. I can see no reason to believe that such a solution either exists, or even can exist.

Also implicit (usually) is the assumption that government action is the answer. They stop spending money on space travel and switch it over to the environment or social programs. My use of the word 'totalitarian' above points to just this idea - more government in all parts of our lives making us all live better, and solving the problems of climate change and/or poverty.

But I dislike it most for what it refuses to do - to boldly go where no man has gone before. I dislike for its renunciation of adventure, of discovery, of confrontation with the greatest existential challenge we have: our relation to the unimaginable vastness of which we are such an insignificant part. Whether the world is sorted or not, the lure of that undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller has yet returned will only grow stronger. If we fail even to set foot there, it will be through cowardice and lack of nerve. To be melodramatic, the idea that we should not leave the nest until it is all spick and span strikes me as like wanting to snuggle up warm and close to the womb forever, a sort of death wish.

9 comments:

Hazar Nesimi said...

Now you are being pessimistic. I don't think that we need to choose on what to spend money one way or the other - it is clear that we will continue spenidng to alleviate poverty and slow down (not avert) global warming AND fund space travel to Mars and beyond. We will not "sorth out the Earth" but the more living standrarts are raised more people are interested in space travel. This action is ultimately, our potential savior, if our own planet - for whatever reason is rendered uninhabitable- most stupid thing will be to stay on it forever. Man going to Mars is first significant step - much better than sending a cheap robot - if we did not think otherwise we would have not send Gagarin and Armstrong. They after all did not do anything scientifically useful.

Riri said...

I find it comical (in a perverse kind of way) to imagine that the wealthy ones who will be able to afford it will leg it to space once this planet is buggered by their lavish and wasteful lifestyles while the rest of us mortals who will not be able to afford it will have no choice but to sit and watch them board their space shuttles. They'll tell us then, while they wave goodbye: "See? We told you it was worth investing in space travel".

NoolaBeulah said...

Hazar, I don't think we need to choose between them; I was just arguing against those that do. I agree entirely with you.

Riri, these things always start with the rich simply because, in their initial stages, they require enormous concentrations of wealth both to finance the activity and to cover the risk of failure. And those that pay have the right to play first.

But then the cost will fall. In fact, it has done so already. Before it was only governments that had the money to go into space, but now private individuals are setting up to do so. Richard Branson is aiming at space tourism in the next few years. In fact, it come down so much that even the miserly British government is talking about reviving its long-moribund space program.

Riri said...

Yes, but I still think it is a useless exercise. To nurture the idea that one day it will be possible to leave the Earth and settle on another planet - other planets are simply not habitable. Space tourism OK, but leaving moribund Earth towards other planets? I think it is too far-fetched an idea.

Hazar Nesimi said...

What if Earth is destroyed by floods, fires or other scary things, or it can not feed excessive populations (we continue breeding to excess) or not enough natural resources avaliable. Do you suggest that the "excess" luggage should just perish. Why not ship them off to Mars and fund a colony there. Was it the way Australia was born. Imagine Bangladesh suffering from overpopulation and disease, do you think they won't agree to settle in some distant colonies and do mining work on Olympus Mons?

Riri said...

Why look so far away from the mother planet - typical of humans, taking everything for granted until it is way too late. I don't think Earth will be destroyed, it is a dynamic planet, I think it is more likely that we go extinct and a new spectrum of creatures will evolve in time. Neither do I think that any significant numbers of humans will consent to leave the Earth no matter what, for tourism maybe but for life! Noway. Don't be too pessimistic about demographic explosions - natural disasters, epidemic carnage, wars/self-destruction and declining fertility will play a major role in counter-acting that. In general, answers are closer to home than you might imagine...

NoolaBeulah said...

May I break into the gloom that you two are are painting the walls with and say, with the awareness of the big issues that a 13-year-old has, that the best reason for going into space is that WE HAVEN'T BEEN THERE. Therefore, it would be EXCITING. It would be an ADVENTURE. It won't make us better; it won't solve our problems, but it will be a helluva distraction. And it's NOT FAIR that I won't be among the people who do it. Now THAT'S injustice on a cosmic scale.

Riri said...

No! If I don't want to go, nobody SHALL GO! Nuff said!

NoolaBeulah said...

Spoken like a true Prez.