A reminder from 35 years ago that we need to ratchet up space exploration

About 35 years ago, astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote the best-selling book of popular science, Cosmos, to accompany his enormously popular public broadcast series of the same name. Cosmos is still in book stores, which explains why my son gave it to me a few months back for Hanukkah.

Sagan surveyed a broad expanse of science in Cosmos, touching on the evolution of the cosmos and life, and the history of the attempts by humans to understand both. Most of the science that Sagan explicated is still valid, and his anecdotes about Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Newton and other scientists were refreshingly non-heroic, focusing on the intriguing mix of science and pseudoscience that animated these titans of physics, chemistry and biology.

The last chapter of Cosmos may be the most compelling to 21st century readers. Writing at the moment in history when our elected officials were beginning to consider curtailment of the space program, Sagan argues fervently for an active program of space exploration. His proposal was to end the nuclear arms program and use the money saved to fund aggressive space exploration. Sagan talked about “Our obligation to survive,” which requires us both to disarm and to explore non-earthly sources of needed resources and a new home for humans. As a pacifist, I would do Sagan one better, and call for a massive reduction in military spending including complete nuclear disarmament; certainly, space exploration would join the development of alternative energy, basic research, repair of our infrastructure, expansion of mass transit and enlarged support for public education as recipients of the money we would save from significantly reducing our military budget. The effect on the economy would be to shift jobs from death-producing industries to life-sustaining industries.

As we know, our elected officials ignored Sagan’s pleas. We have made cut after cut to our program of space exploration for more than three decades. The official position of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) now encourages the private sector take the lead in exploring space. The Wall Street Journal reports that a NASA official recently said that he expects multiple space stations to emerge around the end of the next decade, mostly private, “very single-purpose, small and entrepreneurial.”

Based on the American experience privatizing prisons, higher education and the military, privatization of space exploration will prove to be lucrative for the privatizers and a disaster for everyone else. Each space privatization corporation will pursue its own interests, which tend to be quite short-term. Their reasons for conducting pure research will always be private inurement and not the long-term good of society. An article a few years back by Taylor Dinerman, a member of the board of advisers of a company working on space-solar-power concepts, pointed out that so far all private space efforts have failed.

In a fluff piece called “What Was the Worst Prediction of All Time?” that just appeared, The Atlantic recalls that in 1950 science fiction author Ray Bradbury predicted that we would colonize Mars in the early 2000s as a matter of necessity after poisoning the earth in a global nuclear war. When asked decades later why humanity is not spending spring vacation on the Red Planet, Bradbury reportedly said, “It chose consuming instead—drinking beer and watching soap operas.”

Funny, but untrue. We—meaning humanity—didn’t chose anything. Our leaders chose for us, and their choice has been to disinvest in science, just as they chose to disinvest in public education and infrastructure development. To most Republicans and Democrats, space exploration and other science research are just one more item to cut, so we can continue to provide the wealthy with the historically high tax cuts they have enjoyed over the past 35 years and perhaps, if the Republicans get their way, cut their taxes even more.

The earth will eventually become inhabitable, either because of environmental degradation or an expected increase in the intensity of solar energy hitting the atmosphere in about a billion years. The human race has a limited amount of time to develop the means to transport ourselves to another habitable celestial body. Space exploration is as important as addressing global warming and learning how to operate a no-growth economy if we are to survive as a species.


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