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Guest Blog: In the Shadow of the Moon

Guest Blog: In the Shadow of the Moon

By Astiles  on July 23, 2009

Visions of the Future

'Explorer' is a word that needs some rehabilitation in the popular imagination. Definitions have become so loose and extensible they can be applied to almost anything. Indeed NASA likes this, a really loose definition of the word which leaves it deliberately vague.

What really then is the future for Exploration in the 21st Century? Space exploration and human spaceflight will see a revival because of renewed interest and national rivalries. Spaceflight is now the new prestige endeavor among nations again. But why do we send people into space and what are the motives behind national space programs? It has been said that 'exploration without science is tourism.' There were however many great explorers throughout history who were not scientists, nor did they necessarily think of themselves as explorers either until illustrated magazines glamorized the profession in the 19th century.

Soldiers, mercenaries, merchants, missionaries, navigators, adventurers, spies and lunatics have all expanded the frontiers of human endeavor by going to those places that were blank spaces on the map and filling them in. Bill Nelson - Senator from Florida and astronaut , recently said on the Senate floor ; "Humans, by their nature are driven to explore, explorers have given us heros and and we always have and always will be explorers." Certainly explorers have become heros but by and large the vast majority of people have stayed at home and lived vicariously through the activities of these intrepid few when they knew about their activities at all.

Peary and Henson at the ‘Real North Pole’

So what then could better define exploration for the 21st century? When the range of human activity extends from searching inside the human genome to semi-autonomous robots roaming the surface of Mars? What are the boundaries that will define exploration for these coming centuries? And indeed through it the limits or frontiers of the human experience. Space is the ultimate human endeavor one that is predicated on quite possibly which human future is the right one.

As Steve Squyres puts it: "We ought to be able have a pretty good space program for $17-18 billion a year. On Mars a real geologist could do 10 times the work of a robot but even so I don't claim it would justify the cost." What then does justify sending a man if just being able to do the science is not enough?

Robotic exploration and remote presence may offer part of the solution as a way to expand human knowledge and endeavor but not necessarily the human experience of it. One reason is a robot can send back data and photographs but can't address the fundamental experience of being there. This awe quotient in front of an eternally fascinating mystery is what sets us apart from our machines. To experience though your own eyes is best, but next best is to hear it from the mouth of someone who has actually seen.

The planet is more occupied, mapped, better viewed from above and and arguably better understood than ever before. But there are still a lot of blank spaces to fill in. Even Google missed the details of the planet's oceans on its first pass over Earth. An oversight subsequently corrected with the help of Dr Sylvia Earle. Illustrating even the best searchers can sometime overlook the all too obvious.

You are here!

'I'll know it when I see it." says Kuiper belt astronomer Dan Lester referring to exploration. What makes exploration is, after all a subjective interpretation. The exploration myth, like that of the frontier myth could be just that. Stories predicated on exploration as a personal quest or a function of public pride. Maybe the myth of the great Explorer, like that of the Frontier and the Cowboy are just stories romanticized beyond recognition. A fantasy creation of the ideal challenge response environment.

A human presence is considered indispensable for attributable exploration. So by extension is exploration something that must be undertaken by humans in order for the rest of us to experience it properly? No one has ever called a satellite photograph exploration though it could very well be used for mapping, peacekeeping or spying ... a past function of many noted explorers one might add. Exploration is seldom done for pure science alone. Maybe right now the breakdown is something like this: 50% Pride, 30% Science and 20% international goodwill & cooperation.

Human spaceflight, an expensive undertaking, above all is dangerous even at the best of times. Science, economics, military considerations and prestige are all given as a rationale for a manned space program but prestige hovers above them all. Human spaceflight described as 'exploration' has been used as an excuse to address these and other national priorities. Indeed according to Vikram Sarabhai founder of the India's Space Program, "Human spaceflight is the new marker of modernity." For the emerging superpowers of the 21st century the importance of a manned spaceflight program is an accepted fact, the new marker of a technological coming of age. But nobody put it more succinctly than LBJ: "Failure to master space means being second best in every respect."

The non-economy model courtesy of von Braun and Chesley Bonestell

Spaceflight is a complex endeavor, the most complex endeavor of all, the greatest interdisciplinary systems engineering challange can be faced. It is a giant learning tool for the nation but it is also the pointy end of the spear determining a nation's and ultimately humanity's future. Space programs, not nuclear weapons are the new measure of national prestige and scientific achievement.

"We are planning new missons, new things, new voyages able to enlarge the human experience. For most people there is tacit agreement on the importance of human spaceflight, there is not a lot of pushback or debate in this arena." Dr David Mindell, MIT's Space Policy Research Group.

A future dependent on energy.

Where there are complaints is the lack of a long-term vision which could lead to a defined set of goals or milestones for the future of manned space exploration. Some fundamental questions neglected by the NASA Directorate of Explorations is not can, should or how we go but why do we go? Many of the motivating reasons have been the wrong ones and right now we need to address some general existential questions. Is there anything useful we can do there? Which human future is the right one and how do we get from here to there? It is worthwhile spending a few billion dollars to consider what humanities future is and where our fundamental objectives lie and how the vicarious experience of human spaceflight will affect it to ensure we set off down the best path. Some would say that the major impact those 12 men who walked on the moon made was above all enlarging the human experience. For all of us. Something no machine can ever do. The human presence alone is one of the rationales for exploration but more importantly only a human can answer that simple question that every child wants to ask an astronaut: "What was it really like being there?"

About the author: Ross Severan von Burg lives in New York, where he is a partner with Terrasol II, a fund that promotes investment in CleanTech startups and a former Vice President of Gaia Amazonas an NGO which works to guarantee indigenous rights and prevent tropical deforestation in the the Amazonas basin by the use of ADF credits. His work in the realm of public policy advocates the implementation of laws, development grants & tax credits to encourage the construction of greener roofs, facades and streetscapes in the built environment.

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