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Re-thinking the Space Race

With all of the deserved celebration this week on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, I think it is good time to look at these events in a wider context, and to perhaps challenge our conventional views of expansion and exploration.

The NASA Apollo missions were well named, in that Apollo was the God of Colonization. His rise in the pantheon of Greek Mythology coincided with the expansion of Greek civilization in the Mediterraean in the period 750-550 BCE. Many will see the Apollo project as the beginning of a new era of colonization as we move to become a “multi-planetary species“. For others, this is just the continuation of the great westward expansion of European civilization, now elevated to a global initiative.

Of course, there is another way to look at things. The Greek colonial expansion was driven as much by the denuding of local forests and the collapse of farm lands than it was by the desire to seek new frontiers and travel into uncharted waters. (see http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=3108) Clearly the Greeks, for all their learning, had not mastered the art of sustainabilty.

Likewise, one can see the European expansion and westward colonization as driven primarily by economic factors and the need to settle and feed a rapidly growing population. The impact of that expansion on plant and animal species around the globe, from the forests of India to the bison of the American plains, underscores how little had been learned about provisioning for society in a sustainable fashion.

Now, on the anniversary of the end of the first great “moon race”, some people talk about the “need” to go to Mars, and how the U.S. and international public has lost the spirit of adventure that drove the earlier explorations. These same people want to build a new momentum and the budget for a new adventure into space, claiming that it expresses man’s deepest and most basic desire.

Some people talk of an expansion into space also as an economic activity – to find new worlds to populate – to find new mineral and energy wealth. It is, for them, a continuation of the great ocean voyages and the “opening” of the Americas. This, of course, neglects both the energy cost of moving anything off the surface of the earth, and fact that the Americas were already populated long before European arrival.

I believe that it is a time to challenge such ideas. As someone who grew up in the Age of Aerospace, I fully understand the romanticism that is being peddled. I am no tree-hugging environmentalist, and I am as guilty as the next in terms of personal responsibility to the environment. At the same time, I think we need to “put aside childish things” and recognize things for what they are.

We may indeed one day become a multi-planetary species, but this will not happen until we become a planetary society and learn to manage ourselves, and our impact on the world, in a manner with less implied hubris, and with firm grip on the finite character of our planet and ourselves.

This is not to say we should not have big dreams, nor that we should not be optimistic about our ability to rise to the challenges that face us. It is about realizing where we are and re-orienting our thinking and our priorities. Solutions to problems on earth that enable us to feed, clothe, and house our society in a modestly equitable fashion should be just as exotic, just as deserving of praise, just as worthy of the dreams of our young people as reaching for the distant stars or the nearby planets. NASA captured this very well a few years ago with its program “Mission to Planet Earth“. Let’s get that part right. Let’s embrace our planetary society while making peace with one another and all of the species with which we co-habitate upon this planet. Then, when we are ready, when it makes sense – we can go to the planets and beyond.