June 21, 2004

It's All Messed Up Here On The Ground

Which no one watching the news recently could deny. I've started to post several times about the murder of Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia or the bombings in Iraq, and I just can't. Whether it's because writing about it either sounds trite, or makes me feel trite, I can't determine. So you can imagine my relief when big news in aeronautics gives me something genuinely out of this world to talk about.

Today, what may be the first manned commercial space flight is hoped to reach a height of 62 miles above the surface of the earth. If it's successful, it's developers would be closer than anyone else to winning a $10 million prize on offer for carrying two passengers up to that height twice within two weeks.

Maybe we'll just bring all of our problems with us when we go into space. At least, that's what almost everyone tells me when I'm foolish enough to mention how attached I am to the idea of establishing permanent extraterrestrial habitats. And surely we will, because people haven't changed much in all these years, and a simple change of venue doesn't take away all the baggage of history in one fell swoop.

Still, moving into space has the benefit of being a move to uninhabited and lifeless territory. There will be no exploited natives on the collective conscience of the people going there. They may not treat each other very well, but then they'll need each other more than people have ever needed each other. That usually bodes well for tolerance and amity, which can sometimes become genuine.

Though the largest effects on a move into space won't, I think, be on those first few who migrate into the big empty. It will be on the rest of us. The challenge of getting there will change us, just as it changed Europe to migrate into new territories. Some of it was for the worse (and again, the benefits of moving into uninhabited territory are clear), but over time their societies grew more flexible and creative. The eventual challenge and separation of their satellite colonies pushed them on a (painful and slow) path towards liberalisation and greater levels of freedom.

At first, with both space on vehicles and in living quarters unbearably scarce, only technical people will be sent up. Scientists, engineers, and technicians aren't inherently noble of course, but the likelihood that they'll be more pragmatic and tolerant than average is high. This will shape the character of any new settlement, probably indelibly. The first and most senior people, the ones with the most basic power of life and death will be among the most educated and well-trained members of their parent culture.

More people will come, and things will change. But it will still be a microsociety where the possibility of striking out on your own is essentially nil, and the most valued skills will be those that maintain the necessities of life. (If anyone wants to argue that our present society most values the skills that maintain the necessity of life, this is advance notice that we're up to here with crazy for the day.) As the colonization process is romanticized (which it will be, the question is one of degree), the values of colony culture will begin to seep into the larger societies on earth.

From a scientific perspective, it will be a goldmine. It boggles the mind to try thinking of all the things we've invented because we went to the Moon, and thereby had to perform a lot of tasks that no one had ever before been called on to perform. Moving off planet will fail unless Buckminster Fuller's goal of doing more with less, until you can do nearly everything with practically nothing, is made the driving force of new development.

Someday, we may find rare mineral deposits on Mars. We will almost certainly find and mine asteroids with more metals and valuable trace minerals in them than are produced by all the mining on Earth for a year. The societies that participate in out-migration may indeed find themselves flooded with new things courtesy of both raw materials and technical advancement.

We will also be forced to figure out what makes ecosystems work, and how to bring them with us. Space will be forever beyond reach until food and oxygen no longer has to be imported from home.

And at some point, society will have the opportunity to cross the threshold of a radical change in its perspective on wealth. With more land and materials opened to us than we will be able even to use, our disjointed modern culture may come to the stunning realization that the only things of value we have reside in each other and in the diversity of life in our rich habitats.

I don't mean that in an emotional or sentimental way. Not in a let's-all-join-hands-and-sing kind of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it will have to become clear how physically dependent living things are on each other. It will become clear that things don't confer wealth, but only the knowledge of how to use them as acted upon by people. It may become clear that the most senseless waste is that of allowing the problem solving gifts inherent in every member of our species to go mainly undeveloped.

In space, you could have all the raw information, all the material wealth, all the free territory you wanted, and be the feeblest bag of helpless protoplasm in existence. And if that isn't poor, I don't know what is.

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner in the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry

"The Boy In The Bubble" from Graceland - Paul Simon

Posted by natasha at June 21, 2004 12:30 AM | Technology | Technorati links |


Thank You.

More often than not when I try to explain to people the changes and the similarities (not to mention the necessities) that our continued expansion into the extra-terrestrial I bungle it badly (proving yet again that even, or rather particularly, doctoral students can be, to paraphrase Red, complete dumbarses).

This was a realistic, measured, and rational approach to something that a lot of people simply denigrate without even thinking. You covered points that I have heard before, but not in such a concise, and well linked, way. I particularly like the attention paid to how it will change society. Not be a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, but to think that we won't change is simply naive.

I'm no trekkie by any leap, and I do hesitate to bring it into this conversation, because more often than not the response is a groan of predictablity (particularly from me), but yet, there was a comment by Picard that he made once in response to being asked by an alien species why they were out there exploring and discovering things, that was (I think) "because it's what we do".

I don't think it's the only thing do, nor do I think it's the ultimate answer in any way, shape, or form, but I do think it is really what we need, and have, to reach for.

One can only hope that with more such reasoned arguments, the trend over the last 30 years will be rethought.

thanks again,

Posted by: Sarah at June 21, 2004 04:53 PM

Thanks, Sarah. I guess the thing that gets lost is that progress is rarely linear. We've already started down the road with the first moonwalks, but then there was a period of decline, then renewed interest, then...

We don't really get to know when, or how long, or how hard it will be to get there. But we're going someday, if we manage not to blow ourselves up.

Posted by: natasha at June 22, 2004 07:15 AM

Sorry if I'm a tad rusty, today's my first day back in the blogsphere in months:

Well, I'm glad to here this from The Watch. With the way that the media was hping this, I assumed that they were overhyping it like they do most things(I may be a bit to cynical for my own good).

Of course as numerous editorials pointed out, the cost can be qute high, something hard to justify with the deficit.

Although I'm usually a proponent of the government sponsered programs, for something like this, I hope to see more non-government programs like this. Of course it would help if it's a non profit running it.

Peace, Truth, and Justice,

Posted by: Luke at June 23, 2004 12:26 AM