REFLECTIONS ON SPACE FLIGHT….Not surprisingly, I’ve been getting a lot of flack for my skeptical attitude toward manned space flight. I’ve been thinking some more about it, mostly while I was driving up and back from Los Angeles this afternoon, and I’ve got a few miscellaneous ideas about the whole thing.
One common thread from the space enthusiasts is that if we want to get better at manned space flight someday, we’ve got to keep at it. As Stephen Green put it, in a sharp attack on Paul Krugman’s latest column:
You do not discover new methods of doing things by not doing them. You do not discover safer ways to send humans into harsh environments without sending humans. You do not gain valuable experience by shunning experience. You do not discover cheaper methods without investing time and money. You do not — get this, Paul? — get space colonies without spacemen.
And you certainly don’t encourage dreams of flight by grounding the flyers.
But that’s not necessarily right. When Charles Babbage invented his difference engine, he was laughed at. But there was good reason: there was no future in mechanical computers, and further research wouldn’t have helped. It wasn’t until the vacuum tube and the transistor were invented that true computers became feasible. We may be in the same position today: space colonization just isn’t feasible with the current (or foreseeable) state of the art, and maybe we just need to wait until some quantum leap in technology comes along before we start sending people to Mars to start the terraforming projects.
I have a feeling there may be a generational thing at work here as well. People who came of age in the 50s, 60s, and 70s dreamed of colonies in the sky, mining the asteroids, and putting men on Mars. But while this generation has clung to its old dream even as space flight has become increasingly prosaic, a younger generation has invented its own dreams, and space is not high on their list. Putting two guys in a bucket and spending a couple of years going to Mars so that they can plant a flag and then come home just doesn’t quicken their pulse.
But perhaps other things do. How about microchips implanted in your brain? That’s also science fiction, but the thought of it sure quickens my pulse. It would be way cool, far more so than a straggling band of astronauts living on the Moon and accomplishing little of interest.
There are reasons to send humans into space. As one of my readers pointed out, it was astronauts who fixed the Hubble telescope. But there’s not much reason to do it frequently, and there’s not much reason to dream of government sponsored space stations or moon colonies either.
We need new dreams, not the tired dreams of our parents’ generation. Let’s let the kids figure out what to do next.