Why We Need a Human Space Program (1)

October 30, 2019 at 1:22 pm by Frank White
There’s no question that humans, powered by a potent combination of private enterprise and public funding, are leaving the Earth...

“This first launch of a space system designed for humans, and built and operated by a commercial company through a public-private partnership, is a revolutionary step on our path to get humans to the Moon, Mars and beyond.” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. NASA Press Release – March 2, 2019

There’s no question that humans, powered by a potent combination of private enterprise and public funding, are leaving the Earth and heading out into the solar system. But are we ready, both philosophically and pragmatically, for the challenges that lie ahead?

Consider this: for years, American cities and towns have celebrated Columbus Day on October 12 of each year. Recently, there has been a shift as municipalities abandoned Columbus Day in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

This would be a story in itself but something truly remarkable happened in 2018. Columbus, Ohio, named for the 15th century explorer, also abandoned him and adopted the new terminology. What happened? How did Columbus go from being a hero to being a villain? Did he do something wrong? No, he’s been dead for a very long time, so he couldn’t have done anything to alienate even his namesake city. In fact, our consciousness has changed because we have realized that he was a great exploiter as well as an intrepid explorer.

What if Columbus had set off across the Atlantic with a very different philosophy of exploration. Suppose he had anticipated the Prime Directive that was the foundation of the Star Trek franchise 500 years later?  What if noninterference in the evolution of other cultures had guided his actions in the so-called New World?

That was then, this is now, but there are remarkable similarities and the stakes are high.

We face choices today that will determine the trajectory of space exploration for decades to come as humanity migrates into the solar system. In fact, our future in space is really the human future. Our underlying philosophy about this great adventure matters because it will shape our behavior. So will Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos be seen as heroes or villains by our descendants in 500 years? A lot depends on how and why we go about it.

For example, we are about to see the advent of a new Space Age, when companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Blue Origin will take anyone with the price of a ticket into space. Becoming an astronaut will no longer require that you have the “Right Stuff.”

Can we democratize space exploration, supporting trips for artists, scientists, clergy, global leaders, and the rest of us? Can we benefit from the Overview Effect – the experience of seeing the Earth without national boundaries? Can we see our home planet as a spaceship making its way through a universe that humanity is exploring more than it is exploiting? Having interviewed Sir Richard Branson for my book, The Overview Effect, I believe he wants to do just that, making space travel available to all and to the benefit of Earth. Earlier this year, the president of Virgin, speaking at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, said:

“The more people that see the Earth from above, the more change you can make on Earth,”

  • How will we confront controversies that are looming on asteroid mining rights, space junk, militarization of space, and other important issues or should we just leave it as a “free for all?” 
  • Is space exploration primarily about making money, touting national prestige, or advancing the evolution of our species and the universe?

These aren’t theoretical debates about the future. We are making choices today that are creating our future. Will the advocates of space exploration today be seen as heroes by their descendants? The answer depends not on our rockets but rather on our decisions.

Copyright, Frank White, 2019, All Rights Reserved