Taking a break this week from crying woe and attacking my friends and ancestors to get all skiffy, asking the Question That Shall Not Be Asked Too Loudly: why do we want to explore space, again?
Sure, I get the adventure and romance part, and space pirates buckle my swash right up, but, really: why?
Consider: here is the first of a few videos, well worth the hour they take to watch, of a bunch of nuts building a traditional 18th century trading ship.
By the time you get to the launch, you’ll have seen many men spend many hours cutting trees, shaping timbers, bending planks, applying tar and hemp caulking, forging fixtures and nails and otherwise engaging in feats of manly craftsmanship. Getting from a design to a plan to an ocean-going vessel made of wood is dazzling. And, even in modern times with modern tools, pretty expensive.
Or this, to take it back a few centuries, the classic viking long ship, the big version known as a dragon ship:
Amazing and beautiful ship. Aside: the Vikings generally used bog iron to forge the iron nails on their ships. When iron-rich water drains into bogs, the iron tends to settle out into accumulations of iron-rich ores. All it takes to get this stuff is slopping around in bogs with a shovel and something to carry the ore in. Evidently, finding the deposits was a combination of skill and luck.
After you’ve collected enough ore, you’ll need to heat it and crush it. Many times as much wood as ore is needed to melt it down, so somebody is cutting A LOT of firewood. (Aside on the aside: it is claimed that the Zulus, who were master iron workers, created a lot of grasslands and deserts by cutting down forests of trees to fire their smelters.) Then build a clay furnace, heat the crushed ore in the furnace for many hours, including pumping some sort of manual bellows, until the dross (liquid rock!) flows off and you’re left with a bog iron bloom – a lump of very impure iron. A team of smiths alternately heat (meaning: somebody cut down and gathered yet more wood) the bloom and hammer out the impurities. You heat and pound for hours until you’re left with a few pounds of usable iron – from which you can forge a few nails.
A dragon ship needed hundreds of iron nails. Building wooden ships: a labor and resource intensive exercise.
Or, going back as far as we can in the West, bronze-age stitch ships:
People cut down huge oaks with bronze hand tools, and then carved those oaks into the pieces needed, fitted them and tied them together to make boats that could ply the English Channel. Again, fabulous amounts of labor and ingenuity.
Those 18th century Indiamen came back laden with spices and other valuables. The Dragon Ships came back with booty as well as trade goods. Even the stitch ships seem to have been used to ship out English tin and other trade goods and bring back copper or bronze. But a lot of those ships, and the people on them, didn’t come back. Every trip was a life and death adventure. People had to really want to go for these trips to take place at all, even apart from the enormous investment it took to build the ships.
People will put tremendous effort and take huge risks if there is a payoff at the end. Only rarely will people spend a lot of time and money just to see what’s out there. Even then, what they want to know is if there are goods out there worth the trouble of getting. The Age of Exploration was the age of finding and getting stuff worth getting. It would have ended pretty quickly or followed a much different trajectory if it weren’t for the spices and gold and other goodies that came flooding back to Europe.
Back to space travel. I read once that the moon rocks brought back by the landing missions have mostly sat in boxes collecting dust. Once a few were thoroughly analyzed and found to be very ordinary, science mostly lost interest in them. Be that as it may, so far, we have not discovered anything in space worth the cost and risk of getting it. Reality check. People love to speculate on the value of certain asteroids, and start in predicting that we might go fetch those big rocks full of valuable metals. And maybe we can. It won’t be easy or cheap.
So, once the blush of conquest fades, why do we want to explore space? People, seems to me, are grasping at straws: we’re going to use up the earth! Too many people! We need to spread out or we’ll all die!
Where to even start. Carrington Event, anyone? That’s when the sun emits enough radiation to fry anything in space out to the orbit of Mars. They happen quite regularly, just rarely hit the earth – a planet with a thick atmosphere and a strong magnetic field. Which is why there are still people here. Out in space, or on the moon, or on Mars – not so good. The people in the International Space Station know that, should a Carrington Event happen while they’re up there, they’re not coming home alive.
Same goes for people in transit, people in space habitats, or maybe people on Mars if they’re facing sunward at the time it hits. Maybe we can figure it out, maybe not. The Carrington Event hit in 1859, so we’re 160 years without anything quite so big. Due? Overdue? Don’t think anybody really knows.
I mention this merely to point out that space is, if anything, even more inhospitable than people seem to think. It’s not just the freezing vacuum and occasional bits of high-speed rubble that can kill you. Remember the galactic capital of Trantor from Asimov’s Foundation series? He imagined it as located somewhere near the galaxy’s heart. These days, astronomers strongly suspect that the galaxy’s core is a black hole, and in any event that the denser inner part where most of the stars are is bathed in enough radiation to render it uninhabitable by us. It may just be the case that only out here on the fringes of the spiral arms, the sticks, as it were, are things calm enough long enough for life to survive. That’s not counting the more local difficulties, like novas, neutron stars and black holes, which will make their local neighborhoods very inhospitable.
But forget about all that. Just focus on how valuable something would have to be in order for people to build some way of going into outer space to get it. In Dune, Herbert imagines a drug that confers long life and way cool mind powers on people – that’s the spirit! I can see people risking their lives and spending a trillion or two to get something like that.
But it had better be relatively close by. If it’s not in or very near our own solar system, we’d have a situation where the generation that footed the bill and took the risks is dead long before the payoff. Taking a look at people in general, most of us have trouble planning ahead two weeks, or caring about what happens in 10 years. All of the sudden, we’re going to start investing planetary-level resources into ventures with a payoff (if any) generations in the future?
So: what reasons do we propose for people to venture out into space? Here’s my list of ideas that are at least usable for SFF:
- Romance/adventure: people just want to go because they can. This is Elon Musk and the thousands who signed up for that one-way trip to Mars he proposed.
People – I suspect some very small subset of people, when the rubber hits the road – really, really want to explore strange new worlds, etc. They imagine they are Columbus, heading off into the great unknown, and that something like a New World awaits them.
This works, to some extent, if they are or know billionaires. An industry, such as the shipbuilding industries described above, will not spring up to fund these romantic adventures unless there’s money in it. Columbus had to bring back the goods to keep the exploration flowing. Governments just might do it, but romance and adventure don’t commonly figure into the motivations of governments.
Problems: such people are not rational. Musk and others try to dress it up with reasons such as the ‘need’ to spread out to preserve the species (it’s that payoff in generations thing again) or maybe finding something valuable enough to warrant the expense. Bottom line, such people are hopeless romantics. That one-way ticket to the imagined Mars colony is a death sentence, probably much sooner than later. Even if it works, you’d be living inside a camp or in holes in the ground, trying not to suffocate, freeze or starve. Assuming you survive the trip. People are going to stay sane under these conditions?
Other romance/adventure scenarios are at least this bad. You want to live on/in an orbital structure or asteroid? For something like a few trillion dollars, we could build a nice habitat in space, and a few thousands of people could live there until something hits it, a Carrington Event, a system failure – assuming we can solve the Biosphere 2 problems. Which we have not yet done, nor are there efforts to fix them or even understand them actively underway. Weird, huh?
- Spice/Stroon/That Very Valuable McGuffin.
Sure, that’ll work. Now find it before you’ve driven earth into penury.
Note that asteroid mining, which is still more than a little dubious as an economic activity, isn’t really exploring space in the sense that science fiction imagines it. At best, it’s an excuse to set up bases and space stations. Economically, what you’d want to do would be to send robot drones to capture and redirect asteroids into more convenient orbits, maybe with robot refineries on them to extract the valuable materials.
What is utterly uneconomical is to send people up there to do this. Why? It’s dangerous, boring work that is ideal for a robot which needs neither food nor air and can easily survive high G’s.
So, we’d need to be talking about something much more valuable than minerals, and something that somehow requires physical human intervention.
- Alien life, intelligent or not.
I imagine the lure of alien life would be too great to resist for long. If we knew for sure, somehow, that non-terran life existed anywhere we could get to, I think we’d go.
- Pulling a geographic. Grass is always greener.
Upon consideration, this seems to me to be about the best, most realistic reason for exploring and colonizing space. It works well with and even largely overlaps the Romance/Adventure motive.
We all know or are this person. Many, many people at some point in their lives just want to leave. They will talk themselves into some reason for wanting to leave, but the basic motivation is that feeling that if they could just leave, they would leave their troubles behind.
Let us imagine a surplus economy. We are effectively there, barring major wars or the advent of universal socialism. Everybody is fed, clothed and housed. Nobody works themselves to death unless they want to.
Let us further imagine a civil war between, oh, let’s call them the Party of Death and the Party of Life. (It should not need to be pointed out that these groups do not at all correspond to any current political parties.) The outcome is better than we have any reason to hope: the Party of Life wins its freedom, but allows the Party of Death to exist so long as it does NOTHING to interfere with the free functioning of families and the government instituted by them. You know, to ensure domestic tranquility and secure rights for us and our posterity? No messing with that. Otherwise, you can live your self-destructive, hedonistic lives as long as you keep it to yourselves.
Since the future belongs to those who show up for it, this may not be too far-fetched to at least work as SF&F: those hellbent on their own destruction lash out and destroy – but they don’t have many children. Those dedicated to their families and kids don’t destroy things and do have children. Choosing one course means you are not represented in the future; choosing the other means you are.
The civil war is won when the Party of Death loses control of the government, the schools, and, as a result, of the media and entertainment industries. In my fantasy here, a relatively small number of people die – some when the Party of Life is finally pushed to fight back, some few especially deserving individuals are lined up and shot at dawn due to a (slight) excess of fervor on the part of the victors. But not much real war, as the people with the guns – cops, soldiers – will mostly very much want to stay out of it, and are more sympathetic to the Party of Life anyway.
Hey, it’s my fantasy.
Imagine a world where there are many hardworking people devoted to their families, who now hold power to the extent of vetoing policies and programs that harm them, yet there are also millions of people who want no part of this family nonsense, and are left to destroy themselves in a million ways, if they insist.
More to have something to do and dream about than anything else, such a culture might build generation ships to explore and colonize the stars. So we burn a trillion dollars building such ships and perhaps giant space lasers to help propel them…
It’s not like we don’t burn a trillion here or there even now.
And people will go. Romance, adventure, and the desperate hope that you can leave your troubles behind will drive them.
You can never really leave your troubles behind. Unless you die, which may or may not lead to other troubles.