I have been in two minds (or several) about writing this blogpost. Eventually I decided to post it and let you be the judge of how pompous it is (I am) and how very unqualified to talk about such matters. Yet my head would not leave me alone till I did it. So here goes!
We are currently caught up in the crest of a wave of space exploration projects: The Mangalyaan mission to Mars, the Mars orbiter, the Jade Rabbit mission to the moon, the Rosetta mission and now the announcements of crowdfunding a lunar mission (led by the UK) and India’s planned 2nd Mars mission in 2018. This is not counting the endeavours such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.
Space projects take years from conception to funding to execution and (or in failing to) achieving their goals. So if we see several missions reaching fruition now, this wave of results began really several years earlier.
This cyclical nature of space exploration is quite typical: public interest in space waxes and wanes with competing issues: economic downturns, political unrest, wars, natural disasters, and just what engages the public mood of that generation. Competition between countries to prove their technological prowess also contributes to the space race. The players were usually USA, Russia and Europe. Today the club and race has expanded with India and China adding their own lanes in the sprint. The entry of Joe Public without affiliation to any country is also looking likelier with Citizen science, crowdfunding and space companies. All in all the threshold to space is now more crowded than ever before.
Does that mean we will ever really go to space?
Yesterday in the BBC programme on Science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of the Mars trilogy said that he didn’t think we would ever really go far into space (I paraphrase), that space exploration would be restricted to our backyard, the solar system.
I disagree with that.
For several reasons, the first being, that if we are to be the poor urchins just standing outside with our noses pressed to the shopwindow of the universe I would rather die now. I want to, or need to, believe that at some point my species will be there, part of the grand theatre of space, part of its fabric, learning its secrets. If I cannot go myself, at least I want to believe that my descendants will. Someday.
Other more sane reasons include:
Where we will go and how far really is a question of the time horizon we choose. For the next 50 or even 150 years perhaps we will not venture beyond Mars. But who is to say what we can achieve and reach in 5000 years?
There are several pressures building (apart from the curiosity factor) that I think will at some point push us outward and into space: population, pollution, wars, natural disasters. To survive we will go where we need to. As human beings have done in migrating all over the planet. Only our scale will grow with our need, our technology and our imagination.
If we restrict ourselves to imagining our race/species as unchanging and try to envisage a future in deep space with human beings exactly as they are, that may well be improbable. Venturing into space, there could be genetic mutations due to exposure to radiation leading to a different species of humanoids that survive space. Living on alien works with different gravity, bio-chemistry, atmosphere, and organisms mean our body would over millennia adapt and change. Perhaps one day we will be mating with other species and the resulting human-others will be our distant descendants who see a star-rise thousands of light years away.
Then there is the question that really ought to be tickling us: if as theorized by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life came to earth from space, why could not those meteors/comets that carried life to earth have carried it to other planets? Perhaps there are human like species on other earth like planets already?
This leads me to a rather singular question: who is this “we”?
When we speak about human beings going to space do we mean (a sample) from some of us alive right now? Does it mean our direct descendants born here on Earth? Could it mean life that is identical to us but from a different yet Earth-like planet? In space, would we hold onto our identity as defined by our country of origin/ethnicity/religion/caste/class? Or is it a race identity (since genetically we are not identical, merely very similar)?
What would we be like in space?
Would we go as previous colonizers and explorers have (on Earth): with the entitlement that all nature is here to serve us the masters? Or would we see space as something that we are part of and that is part of us? Could we integrate into the much larger world without trying to enslave or dominate it? Can we be part of something larger without breaking it? Can our sense of self endure and hold whilst also evolving in the face of such huge changes?
Could we co-habit space with others?If we came across other sentient species, would we be able to live with them in peace? Or would we feel the need to yoke them to fulfilling our needs? What if they were technologically our equals/superiors? Would it all play out like a bad Hollywood film scenario? Can we communicate with intelligence that is completely different from our own? Would other species welcome us? Some of these questions have been considered by celebrated authors like Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham.
I don’t suppose the answers are easily to be had. The only thing to hold onto is our desire and hope: space or bust!