Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Self Actualization... and Survival

Wayne Eleazer's essay "Not in our stars" in this week's Space Review is really good, and extremely accurate as far as it goes. I too am in favor of human space flight, not only robotic probes and directly-beneficial applications such as weather and communications satellites. I want to see humans in space, on the Moon, on Mars, exploring and eventually settling the solar system before moving on to the stars. But human spaceflight can be a tough sell to the average person who is not a space enthusiast, and people rightfully ask, "why?" (even if NASA is "only" 0.6% of the Federal budget). I have often answered with the usual arguments for human spaceflight, based on projected resources from space, spinoffs, educational motivation, and even the need to preserve experience and knowledge (and jobs), to remain internationally competitive, and to work with other nations on peaceful and cooperative goals (the last two probably even conflict).

While I agree that the Cold War space race of the sixties and early seventies (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo) could be called a series of "stunts," I would expand that to add "technology demonstration" and "proof of many concepts." We learned a lot in a short time about the possibilities and problems of humans in space, and while those programs weren't built to last, they were built, and the knowledge was gained. It was not only flags and footprints.

But to be honest, the real reason I want to see humans in space (and why I would be one of those humans in a heartbeat) is because it is really, really cool. I think that putting humans in space is the most amazing of the many amazing things that people can do, and it makes me proud to be a human, and yes, proud to be an American. Why should humans be confined to a single small planet in a gigantic universe? Because we were born here?

Are "really, really cool" and "proud to be a human" the same thing as Eleazer's self-actualization idea? He writes
We need to state, up front and forth with, that manned space exploration represents the ultimate act of self-actualization for the human race in general and the United States of America in particular. We need to say that we need to send humans “out there” in order to feel that we—as a race and as a nation—are complete, individually and collectively.
Yeah, I think that's pretty much the same thing. And I don't exclude robotic craft in my pride. I think that Hubble (which has benefited from some astronaut "health care"), Voyager, Cassini, MER, and other robotic probes are also fantastic accomplishments of the human mind and spirit. But when I see the pictures they return, I don't only think, "wow, beautiful," I sometimes also think "someday people should see that with their own eyes - and we will."

But should the taxpaying public pay to do stuff because some of us think it is cool, exciting, or even self-actualizing? At some level, yes. We should work to make the Earth a better place to live, and work to eliminate and prevent suffering and to promote equality of opportunity and other important human values. But we can do those vital and practical things and do other things as well. We often try to make beautiful buildings, not only functional boxes. We provide some support for the arts, for scientific research with no immediate practical use. Some of these "frills" are supported by private individuals, companies, and foundations, and space development is gaining in the private sector too. But government support is still needed, just as it was for the interstate highway system and the various infrastructure projects of the New Deal era.

And there's another reason for putting humans in space that is even more basic - survival. I've written about that before, as have Stephen Hawking and many others. But it's really true. We've got a one-planet solution right now, and no matter how much we say "we have to make that work" (and we do!), it still may not work. Something (possibly ourselves) could wipe us out, and I think humanity is worth preserving. All of life on Earth is of course worth preserving too, but I still have a special preference for humanity, as bad as we may be sometimes.

Self-actualization and survival seem like pretty good reasons to maintain and expand human spaceflight, through NASA, international partners and competitors, and private efforts. So I appreciate Wayne Eleazer's telling it like it really is, for me and for many space enthusiasts.

I feel better now! No more spinoff arguments, I swear, though I probably will continue to bang the space education drum if you don't mind. But behind it all, remember, we're not rooting for space, we're rooting for humanity.

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