Saturday, 2 July 2011

Is the space age over?

I just read an interesting article of the same title in the magazine 'The Economist.' It suggested that 2011 is the year historians will see as the end of the space age, because the last space shuttle launch is scheduled for next week (July 8), and the International Space Station (which it sees as the most colossal waste of money of all time [$100bn]) is also coming to an end in 2020 when it will be 'de-orbited'. It notes that perhaps China may send a man (or woman, or both) to the moon, but the appetitie for further space travel has simply disappeared from governments who face more pressing problems at home (Earth). Probes have landed on most planets and haven't found much to warrant (vastly expensive) human exploration.

I have been pro-space travel since a kid. When sixteen, I led the pro-space angle in a public debate at school, on whether space research should be funded or the money should be spent closer to home. My arguments then (a long time ago) were not only about finding new resources, and the boon of spin-offs from such scientific and technological challenges but were also about the spirit of mankind, the need to explore, to grow. We won the debate, by a narrow margin.

My unbridled enthusiasm was tempered when Challenger blew up. Some years later (1994) I was writing a non-fiction textbook on human reliability assessment, a narrow scientific field which aims to predict human errors and accidents. I dedicated it to 'the seven', i.e. the seven astronauts onboard.

My arguments haven't changed all that much, except I've added another one: if there is other intelligent life out there, it's 50:50 whether they'll be hostile or altruistic. In most of my stories the best we can hope for is indifference, and in my novel series, aliens, too, are looking for resources, and they will simply take them. If alien life does turn up, the fact that they found us first means they will be more advanced. This doesn't just mean more technology, they may actually be more intelligent, the way we are more intelligent than, say, an ape or a dolphin. When we need to cut down a forest or carry out intensive fishing, do we ask them what they think about it?

If another race was surveying us, how would they judge our intelligence, our fitness for survival? They'd maybe be impressed we'd split the atom, and almost certainly less so that we used nuclear bombs against each other. They'd weigh up our technological advances and balance them against the fact that rich nations don't solve the poverty of poor ones, and that corruption and greed seems to be prevalent in our genes. They'd certainly extrapolate underlying racist tendencies to a potential hatred of aliens. Hopefully the'd see some of the good and the creative in us, though I'm not sure it would be enough to tip the scales favorably for an alien race trying to ask the basic question: can we trust humanity? So, what might tip the scales?

Space travel. A thirst for exploration, and not a conquering one. Scientific endeavor. The wish to seek out new life, and not as a food source. Sounds like Gene Roddenberry, doesn't it? And why not. So, for those not of the Star Trek moral persuasion, here's another argument: is it better to be sitting cooped up on one crowded planet when an alien race finally arrives, or to have some options at hand?

I'd like to see an end to poverty and injustice, same as (I hope) the next person would. But space travel doesn't cause any of this. Like many, I feel sickened by the last economic crash where greed led to the loss of over a trillion dollars - and I never thought I'd read the word 'trillion' outside of a scifi story. What could a trillion dollars have done for world poverty?

I like The Economist as a magazine, but it seems to be ignoring some of it's own 'science': many economic patterns are cyclical in nature. The space age might ebb for a while, as many people are hurting financially, and 'belt-tightening' is the norm these days. But it will be back. Not because it makes financial sense, but because it's in our nature to question, to want to know more, to explore. One day, we'll reach Mars. One day, a long way off, we'll break light speed. And then we won't look back. Hopefully by then, we'll have left some of our sorry baggage behind us.

P.S. My novel The Eden Paradox, first in a trilogy, is about our first alien encounter, in 2065. It doesn't go too well... Many of the arguments about the existence of alien life and why we've never seen it (Fermi's paradox), and the need to be better prepared for when aliens do finally come 'a-knocking' are embedded in the novel. Available on Amazon now as an ebook: and from late September as a paperback.See also for short stories on encounters with alien societies.

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