The Ignorance of Isolation
Why Exploration Doesn't Have to be Hard
The Expense of Exploration
We Made This Bed, Now We Sleep in It
March 11th, 2017
History has taught us a lot about exploration. It can lead to horrible things--things that are, in hindsight, avoidable. Rarely has colonization seen ethicality; Hernan Cortes’s takeover of the Aztec empire is exemplary. Culture is also scarcely preserved. These things, however, are not a consequence of exploration itself, but of the mindsets of those who were exploring. Because of this, future exploration can continue while the tragedies of colonization are prevented.
History has also shown us the effects of isolation, and they are worse. A fitting example of this is China’s Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century. Zheng He, a Muslim court eunuch, proposed a series of ocean explorations, endorsed by the contemporary emperor, Zhu Di (Emperor Yongle). The goal of these expeditions was not colonization, and rarely was force a feature. Their goal was simply prosperity, and for a time, prosperity was achieved. The Chinese came into contact with an influx of new scientific technology and information, and with a boom in trade, the economy flourished. It was a new golden age.
However, shortly after the death of Emperor Yongle, xenophobia overwhelmed officials, and in order to protect their “Middle Kingdom,” the new government saw that the fleet was destroyed. From then on, China saw little technological improvement and their economy stagnated. Soon, China fell from their position as a world power, and their golden age was over.
Today, when we speak of exploration, we speak of space. Many fear this exploration for the same reason the Chinese feared outsiders. They believe they are central to some overarching system and that their traditions are definite and superior. These assumptions are exceedingly ignorant, and we have seen their consequences.
I see a modern example of this fear in Gary Westfahl, an author and reviewer of science fiction, in his editorial “The Case Against Space.” Westfahl argues that exploration is not a driving force in humanity and that the past has seen only accidental discovery. However, this assertion looks only to the past and does not apply it to our future. If exploration has not yet occurred on the level that it may in the future, there is all the more reason to start now.
To continue to avoid the larger world, the cosmos, is inherently ignorant, and while ignorance may be bliss, it is also extremely arrogant. We are, as Carl Sagan put it, but a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. To ignore what we are a part of, to assume that we are better off alone, is, to me, the bane of our very existence. We must learn from the mistakes of the Ming Dynasty, and prosper.
On a more economic note, Westfahl asserts that there are no immediate benefits of space travel, so investing so much in it is useless. This is not entirely untrue; it is not in our best interest to try to send massive rockets outside of our solar system (as of today). However, this in no way means that we should refocus the resources we dedicate to exploration; we must continue to invest in the technology that will allow us to one day reach such faraway places.
Exploration is, as of now, very, very expensive. In this situation, I see a semblance with the evolution of computers. The first fully functional digital computer, known as the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator), weighed 50 tons and took up 1,800 square feet. In 1945, it costed $500,000; today, its value would reach over $6,000,000. As of now, anybody can purchase a high quality laptop for maybe $1,000.
Those alive at the time of the ENIAC computer could have never envisioned such a dramatic change, just as many today fail to envision such a plausible increase in the efficiency of space travel.
NASA has actually also reaped many profits with little funding. In 1970, NASA’s budget accounted for only 0.3% of the United States’ GDP. This has been decreasing since; in 2011, it was 0.12%. NASA takes little from the funds that many value for domestic use. Still, from 1976-1984, when just 1% of non-space applications of NASA technology were examined, the 1989 Chapman Research report saw profits of $21.6 billion from sales. 352,000 jobs were created or saved. Space exploration does, in fact, have immediate benefits.
Apart from the immediate benefits, we cannot be certain of what the cosmos will bring until we pursue it. From what we have learned about life, it seems fairly improbable--but in a universe with indefinite borders, the concept of improbability begins to fade away. If intelligent life, life at all, or anything, for that matter, that we have not yet discovered exists elsewhere, we cannot know until we find it ourselves.
We must not ignore our cosmos, or else it will continue to ignore us--and if it ignores us, we will be left to rot like the Ming Dynasty on our pale blue dot.
On July 20th, 1969 approximately six-hundred million people stared wide eyed at black and white cathode ray television sets, witnessing the first manned moon landing. Man had begun its march across the indefinite, unknown expanse of space. The event certainly galvanized a generation of dreamers, confident they would accomplish once impossible feats, just as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had, but is that entirely what they were? What those young children were filled with, as disheartening as it is, was false hope. Carl Sagan once remarked “I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.” Is this a consequence of an education system designed to quell individuality and imagination? Perhaps our schools are at some fault. Or is it the fallout of harsh reality, acquired wisdom, and practicality?
I believe it to primarily be the latter. Science has expanded our own horizon to extraordinary degrees, and continues to do so, and the optimism that fuels it is an apparatus for persistence, to mold failure into initiative, to never give up hope, but optimism in copious amounts quickly morphs into ignorance, and ignorance is, of course, bliss. This ignorance has prevented departure from the misguided space race driven not by scientific interest, but by the desire to trounce a geopolitical enemy that dissolved nearly three decades ago, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the 1960’s NASA received as much as 4.41% of the federal budget, and while that has decreased, it is still substantial.
The cost of space travel remains astronomically high. It is not my place to tell the private sector what it should or shouldn't spend its money on, but when taxpayer dollars are quite literally launched into the abyss, it is my prerogative to express concern. In 2016, $19.6 billion was poured into NASA. While it is true this is only a small fraction of the United State Budget, around 0.5%, every dollar counts. One dollar spent on a pack of bolts could be going towards further securing social security for those who have contributed to it all their working lives, protecting waterways and ecosystems for future generations to enjoy and live off of, or an increase in foreign aid to assist those in dire need.
Many point to the wonderful devices created as a result of NASA awarding grants, such as aircraft anti-icing systems, concentrated LED’s in medical treatments, scratch-resistant lenses, and space blankets, but these wonderful inventions could have been funded and produced just as easily, without fashioning it to leave the atmosphere aboard a $450 million space shuttle per launch, money that could otherwise be spent on allocating even more grants for even more groundbreaking equipment. The scientific knowledge acquired from carrying out experiments in space, such as those that examine the crystallized structure of proteins, most importantly ones that transmit disease, that can only be viewed in micro-gravity, dim when compared to the staggering cost of a single resupply mission. Under the first phase of contracts it required $133 million for 5,000 pounds of cargo aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, or $238 million for 3,300 pounds of supplies loaded on an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, requiring at least one resupply mission every three months. If NASA were to retract itself, the slack could be picked up by these growing private ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, funded by the huge corporations Tesla and Amazon, respectively. We should be more mindful of how we invest our money, and resist the urge to resume the space race in hopes to overcome another international enemy. China. Let us hope the rise of the China National Space Program and their proposal to create a new space station among many other goals does not spur the US Government to pour even more money into NASA to explore further into the solar system.
Many will assert it is man’s destiny to conquer the stars, that we are wanderers and adventurers by nature. While that is an inspiring, alluring statement, it, once again, is not practical. When the New World was unearthed, only those desperate enough dare ventured. The Irish faced starvation, the Puritans persecution. Those who are not desperate enough did it for greed such as Hernan Cortes who sought to exploit, not explore. In history, an open palm quickly tightens into a fist, pulverizing those unlucky enough to be caught within its grasp. Imperialism, and the evil behind it, worms its way into all expeditions. Columbus, who innocently sought to find a new trade route to India, ended up enslaving, torturing, and forcibly converting the peaceful natives. Many say we have learned our lesson, but Donald Trump's threat to seize Iraq’s oil, Russia's annexation of Crimea, and its rising tensions with the Baltic States suggest otherwise.
The obstacles space travel poses currently are unrealistic to try and resolve, primarily due to cost, and the terrestrial challenges space travel attempts to address can be settled much more effectively, without the huge pricetag. Potential threats to Earth such as climate change, diminishing resources, and overpopulation are ones space travel aims to solve and are rational, credible concerns. There is no doubt Earth will eventually run dry, and we will be forced to move elsewhere, but are those influences pressing, requiring us to explore the possibilities of setting up civilization elsewhere? No. Illogical concerns, such as the fear of many Americans of an asteroid comparable to the six mile wide asteroid that is believed to have annihilated the dinosaurs roughly sixty-five million years ago. This fear is an irrational one, similar to that of a fear of planes. The chance of disaster is inconceivably low, a chance no one should construct their life around. If I were to have a house at the top of Mt. Everest, it would be ludicrous for me to purchase flood insurance given the history of flooding at the highest point above sea level. In the same way, it would be foolish to spend an extraordinary amount of money in preparation for an event that will most likely never occur for millions of years. The money otherwise spent on space exploration and research could be used to prevent ever-pressing problems from advancing, such as exploring and fighting climate change to expanding sex education to prevent over-population.
The effort to explore space is sensational, a movement taking imagination, hope, and optimism to excessive levels that one do harm. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, and I certainly don't wish to discourage. But reality trumps emotion, and that is becoming even more evident, and requires our utmost attention, and most importantly, respect.