In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the heavens were made of an unearthly element, the quintessence, different from anything found on Earth. The heavens were incorruptible, while Earth by contrast was mired in sin and decay. The heavens were the habitat of superior beings, the hierarchy of angels, while mortal mankind was confined to Earth (see discussion of the quintessence here).
We now know better. Investigation in situ by spacecraft, and return of samples from the Moon, have demonstrated that the Moon, Mars and Beyond are made of exactly the same elements of silicon, iron, hydrogen, oxygen and so on that we know on Earth.
Yet the space age also revived the old myth in a new form: the heavens are the habitat of superior, almost angelic beings -- astronauts, who can only fly in space after they have undergone special rituals of selection and training, and only after they have been cleansed of sinful commercial motives and have devoted their lives to the spiritual quest of pure science. Only then are they worthy champions of mankind in a heavenly realm which is too expensive, difficult and dangerous for ordinary mortals to dare to approach.
In an essay entitled "Why Explore Space?", Michael Griffin writes:
As NASA resumes flights of the space shuttle to finish building the International Space Station, many are questioning whether the project -- the most complex construction feat ever undertaken -- is worth the risk and expense. [...] The issue was addressed eloquently in the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which examined the 2003 loss of the shuttle and its crew. That report pointed out that for the foreseeable future, space travel is going to be expensive, difficult and dangerous. But, for the United States, it is strategic. It is part of what makes us a great nation. And the report declared that if we are going to send humans into space, the goals ought to be worthy of the cost, the risk and the difficulty."
Now let us think back a century or so. It is 2:20 am on 15 April 1912, and the cold Atlantic waters have just swallowed up the great liner RMS Titanic. The chairman of the White Star Line announces: "For the foreseeable future, transatlantic travel is going to be expensive, difficult and dangerous." Er, no, he didn't actually; rather the Titanic's sister ships were modified to make them safer. Half a century ago, the first passenger jet airliners disintegrate in flight with the loss of everybody on board, and the chairman of De Havilland says: "For the foreseeable future, air travel in jet aircraft is going to be expensive, difficult and dangerous." Wrong again; Boeing and Douglas move into the market with safer designs, and jet air travel enjoys enormous growth.
The loss of the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia was par for the course, when looked at in a historical perspective. The difference was that the sinking liners and exploding aircraft of the past were commercial projects, whereas the Shuttles are political ones. The markets for transatlantic and other routes were in full flow, and these forced the liner companies to make improvements. But the market for space travel is still embryonic, and the Shuttle is an emblem of American prowess.
What Michael Griffin should have said was: "The Shuttle keeps crashing, therefore it is a bad design; we can build one that will make space travel cheaper, easier and safer." But he could not say that, because the Shuttle is a political rather than a commercial transport system. As a result, it is too closely identified with American political prestige. It is simultaneously locked out of the size of market that would bring into play David Ashford's "winning equation" (Spaceflight Revolution, p.48) of reusability plus maturity. And its overall design seems perversely intended to block incremental improvement, rather than facilitate it.
The dogma has therefore been reinforced that, for the foreseeable future, space travel is going to be expensive, difficult and dangerous, and is therefore no place for the public to visit in person. I would argue that the overturning of this misperception will the most significant development of the next few years, irrespective of whether astronauts return to the Moon or not.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has written another essay, this one entitled "Human Space Exploration: The Next 50 Years" (14 March 2007).
Next month I intend to publish some comments on what Griffin has to say here, and I invite readers of this to contribute their own views as well.
More comment can be found from Donald Beattie in The Space Review.
One reason why the scientific and technological view of life is being so slow to overtake the popularity of traditional religions is that it does not have an attractive theory of consciousness.
Religion touches a believer's life in the most intimate, personal way possible, while advocates of science, technological improvement and mankind's astronautical evolution to the stars are left with only a broad political and social philosophy, in which the events of an individual life are of little account, unless that individual happens to be a scientist, astronaut or other outstanding personality.
Since most people's lives are touched by tragedy and failure, and everybody's life ends in the ultimate tragedy of death, the astronautical view seems to demand a certain stoic selflessness which does not come easily to most people. Or, as Peter Hammill sang in "Childlike Faith in Childhood's End":
Adrift without a course, it's very lonely here,
our only conjecture what lies behind the dark.
Still, I find I can cling to a lifeline,
think of a lifetime which means more than my own one --
dreams of a grander thing than we are.
Time and Space hang heavy on my shoulders:
when all life is over who can say no mutated force shall remain?
Though the towers of the city are denied to we men of clay
still we know we shall scale the heights one day.
Frightened in the silence --
frightened, but thinking very hard,
let us make computations of the stars.
(Van Der Graaf Generator, album Still Life, 1976)
There are two common theories of consciousness. The monotheistic one is that God creates human conscious souls, which once created are everlasting, even though the ones he decides he doesn't like he bins in the incinerator. The materialist theory is that consciousness is a chance byproduct of the complex information processing in human (and other?) brains, of no particular significance in itself, and just goes out like a light when the brain ceases to function. Frankly, I find both of these ideas pretty implausible.
Obviously, other theories are possible, but for some strange reason they do not yet seem to have acquired such widespread currency.
My own discussion of one of these alternative theories, "Beyond the Psychoscope", is now online.
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