Monday, May 11, 2009

Space, the Final Frontier: Part 1

Today there is an interesting convergence of four related facts.

(1) The Obama Administration released its proposed budget for NASA for the next few years. It is pretty much "business as usual" with the notable exception of an increase in funding for earth-monitoring satellites. (See: Obama's NASA Budget Draws Mixed Reviews)

(2) Star Trek 11 came out. (See Time: Box Office Weekend: Star Trek Conquers the Universe)

(3) The Space Shuttle Atlantis is lifting off for the last and final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. (See CNN: Shuttle Atlantis ready for liftoff)

(4) The team running the Kepler Space Telescope will have a meeting today to discuss whether the results of two months of calibration are over and the telescope can start to collect real data. (See: Kepler News: News Releases and Updates)

The Kepler Space Telescope, by the way, will watch a region of over 100,000 stars for signs that those stars dim slightly as a planet passes between it and the Earth. It is capable of finding earth-size planets in the habitable zone around a star – planets capable of supporting life.

These four events all relate to a virtue, in a desire-utilitarian sense. This virtue is a passion to move out beyond our current and comfortable boundaries and to take the risk – to partake in the adventure – of moving beyond those boundaries. In this case, into space.

There will come a time when the only survivors of the human race will be those who have moved off of this rock and into space. If, when that day comes, there are not enough people living in space, then humans will have become yet another extinct species.

The same is also true of every other species that we currently know about. For everything from humpback whales to simple grass, the only representatives of that species (or its evolutionary descendents) will be those that humans move into habitats off of earth.

The Hubble Space telescope has shown us forces that could destroy a planet. There are forces that can tear apart solar systems, and even forces that can sterilize whole sections of galaxies, but we must deal with one issue at a time.

Anything from a gamma ray burst to a comet impact to rogue black holes. The universe could destroy humanity without even the slightest twinge of conscience. It can also use disease or climate change to bring about the same end.

Of course, we also have the ability to be the agents of our own extinction.

Plus, there is a possibility that there are beings out in the universe already who have no intention of sharing the universe with us. They will want the universe all to themselves. If they should exist, and if we are not able to defend ourselves from them, then they will get their wish.

It has almost certainly already happened. Some civilization has already ended, at the hands of nature, or of some external aggressor, or at their own hands. Nature does not care to preserve us, and will take no pains to do so other than those that we take to preserve ourselves.

One important use of the tools of praise and condemnation is to praise and encourage those who look up and see a future for humanity in places other than Earth, and to condemn those who suggest that we should keep all of humanity’s eggs in this one planetary basket. The love of adventure and of exploration, if sufficiently well encouraged and if nature gives us enough time, can be the survival of humanity.

The promotion of a bunker mentality – of the attitude that we should not look up and out – is a threat to the survival of the human race.

It is not wholly evil for a person to suggest that the money that goes into the colonization of space be spent, instead, on the problems that we have here on Earth. At the very least, they are showing some concern for those problems. However, we will never solve all of the problems of earth until the earth itself is yet another lifeless sphere in space – and that is not an acceptable way of eliminating those problems.

So, while such a person is not wholly evil, they are being foolish. And foolishness is not a virtue. It is not a trait worthy of praise.

Parents, teachers, as well as authors and movie producers, who turn a child's life up into space as a future home of humanity, will be encouraging those children to help to secure a future for all of humanity. It would be a good use of those tools.


Anonymous said...

Hey Alonzo, this is off topic but i wanted to give you a quick heads up that Francis Collins is at it again:

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but why is "a passion to move out beyond our current and comfortable boundaries and to take the risk – to partake in the adventure – of moving beyond those boundaries" a virtue?

It may be for you, but why must it be for me? For that matter, why must I be virtuous? I see this sort of thing as a way to limit of my autonomy.

You might argue that failure to accept this "virtue" is irrational. But why? How are you defining "rationality" and why should I have to accept that definition?

Dave Huntsman said...

Not bad.

I'd modify your comment on the Obama budget, though:
- it increases emphasis on using NASA's expertise in the monitoring the climate and environment, something that often had to be fought for in the Bush Administration.
- in starts the process of revitalizing the Aeronautics function (the first 'A' in 'NASA") which has been cut in half in recent years - just as the U.S. has lost it's lead in aeronautics in the world.
- the Obama administration has signaled it's going to expand the commercial development of space, with its first action being reallocation of $150 of $400m stimulus money from Constellation/Orion/Ares, to start encouraging development of a human commercial transportation industry.

I can't speak for everyone in the Agency, of course. But for me, the reason I'm still in there chugging along trying to do good hasn't changed much from when I first entered NASA 34 years ago: I want to see humanity, it's economy, culture, and sphere of operation, expand beyond Earth; and I want to see our human race established, off-planet, in my lifetime. If we (I!) can help accomplish that, it would be part of the greatest step for our survival since our ancestors left Africa - if not larger.

Emu Sam said...

To the second anonymous:

Alonzo speaks under the assumption that acting for the benefit of future generations is a virtuous thing to do. (One can argue that this is the case by looking at how many people benefit from having younger people around to help, to teach, to take over, or to give joy.) Extending this many generations into the future, it becomes easy to argue that extinction is an undesirable thing, since extinction would mean the end of future generations.

If one is for humanity, one is against the extinction of humanity.

And if humans never leave earth, humans will become extinct faster than if they establish colonies off earth.

"a passion to move out beyond our current and comfortable boundaries and to take the risk – to partake in the adventure – of moving beyond those boundaries" is useful in establishing those colonies. It's also useful in many other forms of acquiring knowledge, but that is beyond the scope of the post.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

To the Second Anonymous

Emu Sam provides an adequate short answer. If you have more questions, Luke Muehlhauser has provided a resource for answering your questions.

A Desire Utilitarian FAQ

anton said...

Space gives US America one more place it could establish its immorality, exploitation for personal profit and its inherent ability to blindly contaminate another "frontier" while it pursues self-edifying adventures that do not benefit existence of the human race. All we have to do is look at its track record with the results of its current space technology to conclude that even though it may have the political will to demonstrate its innovation and scientific talent, it will not apply its new-found knowledge if it doesn't profit for the right people.

Just look at its space surveillance of our global warming to see what I mean. The space pictures with their accompanying analysis and forecasts are fantastic. Is US America willing to do anything about the findings? No! Could the delusional state of the US American religious extend to the believe that all they have to do now is find another planet to pollute.

Dave Huntsman said...

Anton..... you're exactly right, in just about all that you said. Those things really could happen, If we let them.

Columbus' voyage was important because it finally started the process of uniting the human world on Earth. The process the next several hundred years was brutal - or worse. But this planet would also be much worse off if one of the new countries that resulted, the United States, acting in its better mode, didn't step in to save the old world a time or two from itself.

Human society needs to expand into space to survive just in a physical sense - to make sure no planet-wide catastrophe, either natural or man-made, doesn't kill off human civilization. But I also believe that crossing the new ocean and discovering new continents will end up also lead to new human societies, not bound to all the negatives of the current societies of Earth. And it just may be that humans in the new societies out there will end up being able to come back and 'save' the old ones on Earth, yet again.

Evolution is not just technical; it's cultural, it's societal, it's even governance. Infinite combinations in infinite diversity.

anton said...

Dave, I will admit that US America helped the old world but I would hastily add that it extracted a high price for its "valor". I believe a closer inspection of US America's history in these events would unveil a different US America than it likes to promote. From the big ticket items like the space race down to baseball and the bible, history that is taught in US America is missing some important facts . . . like your reference to Columbus. The rest of the world is concerned that the philosophies such as those referenced in What is America? by Ronald Wright, continue to this day. You may wish to read a couple of issues of my blog. I don't think I should be repeating them on Alonzo's blog.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

While acknowledging the mistakes of the past, the question I am concerned with is how to make things better in the future.

There is a significant difference between building space cities out of asteroids and the colonization of America. Namely, space is dead. There is no indigenous population to exploit or remove. There is not even a living ecosystem to mutilate and destroy. We have big chunks of rock, or gravel pits flying around in close formation. We cannot do any harm to them in any morally significant way.

The only morally significant harm to talk about is the harm we do to each other (and any other creature with desires).

On this metric, if we wish to do less morally significant harm, one of the ways we begin is by moving our most harmful activities to locations where no morally significant harm can be done - into space.

Yes, we will continue to maltreat each other on Earth.

Yes, we should do less of it.

Here is one set of steps that move us in that direction.

anton said...

While acknowledging the mistakes of the past, the question I am concerned with is how to make things better in the future.It's just not a matter of acknowledging past mistakes, it a willingness to be accountable. Black Beard the Pirate, on discovering and inhabiting a previously undetected island has the opportunity to "create a new world". He can even "ackowledge" that he used to be bad guy. Unfortunately, he brings with him his values, moralities and habits. If your solution for mankind was to take effect, my main concern would be the process used to decide who gets to go! Also, what "rule" would be in place to deal with any space traveler who "reverts" to earthly weaknesses and "compromises" the new world. For example, the most qualified person I know of in US America to preside over a selection process would be Noam Chomsky who is often referred to as "America's conscience". Would the "guys" who built the space ship allow him to do the job that has to be done? If they did, it would be an ideal solution. In reality, I don't place much faith in such a solution until enough people in power did a "fearless moral inventory". Our first problem, and perhaps the largest to overcome, is that no religious people would qualify for the trip!

Science fiction and recent space activities tell us that any form of contamination must be avoided. We know what happened when Europeans introduced their small pox to North America. Similarly, we wouldn't want to contaminate "mankind's" new frontier. That, Alonzo, is one of the realities of what tends to be missing when we "dream of a solution".

In closing, great post, great idea -- now lets get back to earth!