On becoming a spacefaring race

Thursday, May 07, 2009


I'm off to watch the new Star Trek in a few hours, and have a bit of time before I leave. Watching Star Trek is always half inspiring and half depressing at the same time, the reason for the latter being that Star Trek always drives home just how far away we are from even coming close to becoming a true spacefaring race.

Since funding is limited there's always an ongoing debate on robotic vs. human exploration, because a) robots can go just about anywhere and at a fraction of the price of the cost required to send humans, but b) exploring is something that humans just do anyway, and in order to become a spacefaring race we need to practice doing it until it becomes second nature.

Expanding a bit on argument b) though in the light of Star Trek, one thing is certainly clear: what makes Star Trek interesting is not so much the technical capability of the Federation ships, nor the places the Enterprise explores, but rather the culture of the Federation and life aboard a starship. Even the episodes with the Borg are not interesting because of the flashy battles between the Borg and the other races but rather the horrifying thought that everything the Federation has stood for all this time (and humanity itself) could be wiped out by a simple application of nanoprobes. Other episodes of particular interest involve Data's progression as he learns what it means to be human, interaction between Data and other members of the Federation that often consider him to be nothing more than a machine, Worf's adjustment to another culture, Captain Picard's pure awesomeness (remember the episode with the Baryon Sweep?) and depth of character, all that.

The same is often true in politics as well, where we often know the names of politicians much better than we do their actual positions on one matter or another. It seems we're hardwired to be more interested in people than what's around them.

Now contrast that with the astronauts we have today. How many can you name? Do they get along with each other? What sort of personal growth have they gone through as a result of having traveled to space? Are there any interesting clashes of culture between the Russians, Americans and others on the ISS?

Well?

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So perhaps that's a major factor in why the average person isn't interested in space. It may be that we simply don't have enough people up above the Earth in the first place to have any interesting interactions between astronauts that are worth talking about.

Expanding on this, imagine that it was decided that the ISS were to be dismantled today, and all the astronauts on board had to come home. That's a total of three (soon to be six) astronauts. There would certainly be an outcry because of all the work put into the ISS already, but it would be based on the fact that we've spent so much time on its construction rather the fact that the astronauts up there would have to come home. Now imagine that instead of the ISS with three to six people we have a station up there that has had a full complement of 100 for the past decade, and in this tiny hamlet in the sky there has also been quite a bit of drama over the past few years and we know a few of their names. John's the guy that's always on The Colbert Report, Sarah just got married to Jim after she broke up with Todd (and we're very concerned about Todd because he doesn't seem to be over her yet), Trevor seems a bit depressed lately, and Jill seems to enjoy ordering people around a bit too much after her promotion.

Now imagine that due to budget cutbacks the decision was made to dismantle this station, and all these astronauts have to come home early. Feels different, doesn't it? Now the biggest reason for wanting to keep the station in the sky is simply because it's there, because it's a community of its own that we like to keep an eye on and one that couldn't be replicated anywhere else. It would be like dismantling the Enterprise and sending each of the crew members to serve on different ships elsewhere.

So in short, the biggest problem we have at the moment could be that either our astronauts are too boring, or that they may be interesting enough people but we simply don't have enough of them in space to make their interactions seem interesting to those of us here on Earth.

In that light, perhaps it will be Bigelow Aerospace that saves us. Plus the discovery of other Earth-like planets by Kepler and other telescopes and observatories. What do you say?

4 comments:

David Freiberg said...

I would have never thought about it myself, but you have an excellent point. People are hardwired towards drama and soap operas.

JimDesu said...

Simply put, which such dreams are the awesome, the fact is that we aren't sufficiently developed, technologically, for half of such to be economic. We don't even have a practical way to keep our would-be space travellers from being cooked by radiation much less or from withering away from lack of gravity, much less making it practical for the broader population to use space travel. Sure, we have a lot of generic ideas as to what the solutions might look like, but I believe it'll be centuries before we've actually achieved practical solutions to the most basic of these problems. In the meanwhile, we need the robots exploring so that when we can finally start exploring for real, we can get enough bang for the buck to make the endeavor's self-supporting.

The dismal science wins as usual.... :-(

David Freiberg said...

I would have never thought about it myself, but you have an excellent point. People are hardwired towards drama and soap operas.

JimDesu said...

Simply put, which such dreams are the awesome, the fact is that we aren't sufficiently developed, technologically, for half of such to be economic. We don't even have a practical way to keep our would-be space travellers from being cooked by radiation much less or from withering away from lack of gravity, much less making it practical for the broader population to use space travel. Sure, we have a lot of generic ideas as to what the solutions might look like, but I believe it'll be centuries before we've actually achieved practical solutions to the most basic of these problems. In the meanwhile, we need the robots exploring so that when we can finally start exploring for real, we can get enough bang for the buck to make the endeavor's self-supporting.

The dismal science wins as usual.... :-(

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