Monday, August 07, 2017

The Prospects and Purpose of Manned Space Travel

The Huffington Post has published this bit by Dr. Sten Odenwald:

In it, he points out the practical difficulties that make interstellar travel as it is popularly imagined quite impossible.

Dr. Odenwald seems to have done the same math I did.

I shared Dr. Odenwald's article with a number of writers, and I've also been paying a bit of attention to other discussion threads responding to the article. A common response is that we will overcome these difficulties, just you wait. And that the prime motivation for this is either Economics (which apparently fuels all Human endeavor) or Survival (because we're going to screw this place up, and will have to move on).

The problem with the first proposition is that Physics is unimpressed by Economics. And in this area of physics we seem to be dealing with unobtainium.

In sci-fi, it's common to "invent" elements with properties that are needed for the story. Our ability to imagine them lends no plausibility to their eventual discovery. We have a rather complete picture of the Periodic Table, and the only room for new elements is at the extreme high energy end where elements are unstable and short-lived.

ALL proposed methods of FTL (including the Alcubierre drive) involve exotic forms of matter that either purely theoretical or unobtainable. This isn't something that's solvable by Economics.

Nor do I believe that it's necessary to look to economics as the motivation for all of human achievement. We achieve because we can. It's only after we've achieved that we look for sustainable ways to exploit that we have discovered. Capitalism did not fuel the discovery of the poles, nor the climbing of Everest, nor the Apollo moon landings. Furthermore, it was socialists, not capitalists, who launched the first orbiting satellite (Sputnik), the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first woman into space (Valentina Tereshkova).

Those that believe that Capitalism is the beginning and the end of Human endeavor point to things that are the result, but not the motivation, for achievement. For instance, Mylar, Teflon, and computing were all advanced by the space program. It does not follow that we went to the Moon because we wanted fresher Pop-Tarts, non-stick pans, and iPads. I'm vehemently capitalistic myself.  But what I'm trying to put across here is that there are some things that transcend politics or economics.


The problem with the second proposal is that it is ludicrous. By that I mean it's laugh-out-loud ridiculous. There is not even a potential scenario in which even Mars could look more inviting than Earth. If push came to shove, post-apocalyptic Earthers could use the same kind of habitats that they'd need to use on Mars and save 100% of the travel. Should the Earth become a polluted cesspool, it would still be in the center of the "Goldilocks Zone" (the habitable zone around our star). It would still contain easily accessible water and oxygen. It would still have the absolute perfect gravity for human inhabitants. And we would still already be here. If we ever found a planet orbiting another star that's as inviting as the shittiest Earth we can imagine, we would become euphoric over our good fortune and start babbling about terraforming. Meanwhile, people who claim to "fucking love science" overlook the fact that if that world can be terraformed, then this one can be cleaned.

As a correspondent rightly pointed out, until we can successfully maintain self-sustaining, self-contained habitable units on the most inhospitable parts of this planet, then we are not competent to inhabit other worlds. As of this date, we have been horrifically bad at accomplishing this necessary feat.

In point of fact, we would of necessity have to take much better care of any world or spacecraft we wish to inhabit than we will have of Earth if it ever gets to that point. Of course, the Earth is always being screwed up by somebody else, so the elitist underlying message is that off-world colonization is for the smart people who had to leave all the dummies behind to die. As spaceships go, Earth is a pretty good one, large enough to maintain itself relatively easily. The only actual proposals thus far that hold the slightest candle to Earth itself are huge Rama-style "flying terrariums" with robust self-contained ecosystems, miles in diameter. The larger such a thing is, the more you can rely on microfauna and algae, etc. to make it self-sustaining. Something like this is a legitimate engineering problem which would not be practical in the near future. Such a vessel would be a world unto itself, and doesn't lend itself to Space Opera dreams of fast interstellar travel. And within this solar system, it's simply unnecessary.

Artist's conception of the interior of "Rama"
from Wikimedia

It's my opinion that any plausible motivation for interplanetary travel must be because we can, not because we must.


While I agree with the vast majority of what Dr. Odenwald's has written, his assessment of manned missions inside the solar system is somewhat bleaker than mine. Here's the part where my political head starts shaking...
"Meanwhile, if you want any kind of space exploration that matters within the next century or beyond, it will be robotic, virtual, and involve billions of people, not just a few very lucky travelers — so what’s wrong with that?"
Here Dr. Odenwald reveals a political outlook that I don't share. His solutions are impersonal, illusory, and seek equality of outcome. In promoting them, he blocks truly great achievements for the mediocre participation of the many. And let's not forget that any virtual presence that a robot could provide is equally obtainable from human explorers. And what's more, only humans can relate the feeling of exotic environments.

William G.T. Shedd might have replied, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

Replica of the Pinta in Charleston Harbor
photo by F. Everett Leigh

We put men and women on mountaintops, on the poles, in the depths, in orbit, and on other worlds not because they are the "few very lucky travelers"; but because it is a real, grounded achievement, and because they go as representatives of Humanity. As such, the achievement of one is the achievement of all. As Neil Armstrong famously said on the surface of the Moon, "One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind."

A human achievement demonstrates Humanity's ability to overcome. A robot does not. And that's what's wrong with that.

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