Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Escape Hatch

Stephen Hawking recently gave a speech in which he advocated the near-future colonization of space to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of looming disasters such as global warming, nuclear war, and genetically engineered disease. His comments have drawn scathing criticism across the blogosphere, most notably among the contributors on ScienceBlogs. These critics deride Hawking's suggestion primarily on three counts: we are nowhere near the level of technology sufficient to survive off Earth indefinitely; only a small elite could possibly escape one of these disasters, should one arise; and we should clean up our mess on Earth before we think of spreading it elsewhere.

Hawking's specific urging of space colonization in the next few decades is quite possibly technologically impossible. The question is: what role, if any, should space exploration and settlement play in a technoprogressive society?

It seems clear that the basic premise from which Hawking starts is correct. We could easily exterminate ourselves in a variety of ways, or nature could handily do the job for us. If there is a reasonable prospect for success, certainly having some humans alive is better than none, and the only way to ensure this survival is to get some humans off Earth. The more, the farther away, the better. Unfortunately, until we can create self-sustaining artificial biospheres, any off-Earth settlement is doomed.

But that doesn't mean that we should ignore these prospects. Earth's ecosystem is being damaged by human activity on Earth, particularly through global warming. If we haven't reached it yet, we are soon approaching the point at which merely halting our activities is no longer enough. We will have to actively manage at least some of our environment if we are to recover what we are losing. We will find ourselves re-terraforming Terra itself. Where will we learn? Our track record thus far is fairly abysmal.

I submit that space settlement -- both in self-contained orbital habitats and on the surface of Mars and other bodies -- and the restoration of Earth's ecosystem are projects best achieved symbiotically with one another. Lessons learned as we examine the damage we have wreaked here will find applications as we strive to build better environments elsewhere. And as we learn about building environments from the ground up, we will learn what can be done to return from damage that might otherwise be irreversible. As both projects proceed, we will eventually reach a point at which we have recovered from our terrestrial foibles and spread pockets of survival away from the dangers that threaten us.

There is another, more indirectly progressive reason to encourage the settlement of space: diversity. Until such time as the world has been rid of totalitarianism, there will always be forces of homogeneity and oppression. Societies independent of Earth entirely, separated from Earthly concerns by millions of miles, will be free to establish myriad experiments in liberal and social democracy. Some will be anarchies, some will be communes, others will be republics, and so on. Cultures will diverge, new art and music and food will be created. The human experience will be richer for the diaspora.

But this is something that cannot flourish until centuries hence. Progressivism is pragmatic, interested in finding solutions to problems that achieve the best outcomes for the most people. I suggest that a technoprogressive space exploration program would be focused in the near-term on planetology, learning about the similarities and differences between Earth and its neighbors with continuing space-based Earth observation and environmental research.

However, human spaceflight is a capacity that we cannot afford to ignore, despite the risks. But rather than a flags-and-footprints program of nationalistic pride -- another Apollo, or President Bush's current Moon-Mars masturbation -- human spaceflight should be about something. It should be about science and exploration and survival, furthering the goals outlined above as they become feasible. It is not a choice between a crumbling Earth and the fantasy of space. We should not shy away from grand dreams, but harness them for the good of all.

5 comments:

Tom FitzGerald said...

Bravo for a great post, and bravo to Hawking for taking a possibly vital stand.

I noticed that the objections to Hawking were similar to those leveled at enhancement:

"These critics deride Hawking's suggestion primarily on three counts: we are nowhere near the level of technology sufficient to survive off Earth indefinitely; only a small elite could possibly escape one of these disasters, should one arise; and we should clean up our mess on Earth before we think of spreading it elsewhere."

The first objection is that it's pie-in-the-sky. This may be true of both space settlement and of enhancement, but you never know until you try.

The second is similar to the worries over the development of a GenRich class, and can be addressed in both cases by a combined application of capitalism's genius for causing the expensive new techs of the rich to become the cheap old techs of the poor (cars, computers, etc), and by social democracy's genius for making sure the poor get a fair shake in the meantime.

The third objection amounts to the space program being a waste of money more beneficially spent elsewhere, and has been levelled at SENS as well. Both can be met by pointing out that space and enhancement together (along with a hydrogen economy and distributed desalination and vaccines for global pandemics) would be a bargain compared to the permanent international arms race.

Dale Carrico said...

Ryan wites that "a technoprogressive space exploration program would be focused in the near-term on planetology, learning about the similarities and differences between Earth and its neighbors with continuing space-based Earth observation and environmental research." Does this incline you to support robotic over human exploration in the near term?

I personally think important "intangible" benefits accrue to human exploration that don't attach to robotic exploration, but it's a hard case to make well. I think this is what you are getting at when you say that "human spaceflight should be about something," and I agree with you very much. I like, for example, the explicit internationalism of some of the rhetoric of space exploration while especially deploring the conspicuous militarism and nationalism of some of the rhetoric.

For me the problem with those who want to make a case for space diaspora as a way of coping with weapons proliferation or environmental problems is that it seems to become a rather distortive proxy for discussions that need to be addressed more directly if they are to be dealt with practically.

I mean, it seems to me that despite the catastrophic apparently impending problems of human-induced climate change, the difficulties of terraforming other planets are incomparably harder than the problem of terraforming earth to sustainably support unprecedentedly populous and prostheticized human civilization.

Similarly, it seems to me the problems of regulating and monitoring weapons proliferation on earth are likely to be no more difficult than doing so under conditions of any diaspora that might exist in an era where such weapons might destroy earth. How many stray suitcase nukes or engineered pathogens would it take to wipe out an asteroid colony, after all, and how hard could it be to get ones hands on one if conditions prevailing on earth brought it to the point of extinction via such weapons?

Superlative technology has a metaphorical existence, a symbolic force, that sets in motion people's hyperbolic fantasies of radical empowerment and of radical disempowerment, glimpses of superhumanization and of dehumanization, dreams of transcendence and escape and intimations of disaster.

It is a special quandary of technodevelopmental politics that we have to attend to the differences (and, harder, the inevitable interdepencies) between technology-discourse as a language of the sublime, of romance, of endless allegories, and technodevelopmental social struggle as a matter of the interminable worldly traffic between foresight and appropriation.

This is actually why I agree with you that we should make space exploration more explicitly about concretely performing the value of science for the good of all rather than for elite profit, performing the value of cooperation among diverse people, performing an awareness of earth as a fragile planet among incomparable less hospitable ones rather than as a dispensable human stage or an inexhaustible automagically renewed resource for thoughtless consumption, and so on.

Ryan said...

Personally, as far as robots vs. humans, I'd like to maintain a healthy mix. While I'm all for swarming various species of robot on every rock we can find, human spaceflight (even in the short term) is important for two reasons.

First, there are things robots just can't yet do -- Spirit and Opportunity have traveled a couple miles and dug a couple of holes, imagine what four human geologists could do over two years. As my favorite analogy goes, try sending one of those rovers to Rome to see the sights and see if you feel like you've vacationed there.

Second, I think there is a certain element of "use it or lose it" to spaceflight. We couldn't build a Saturn V today if we wanted to, not without re-engineering it. The plans are lost, the machining tools are destroyed. I think we need to keep putting people up so that, when it comes time to do grander things, we aren't starting from scratch. However, an overbudget orbital tin can and flags-and-footprints token Moon shots are not particularly useful except as wastes of valuable space dollars.

As to your other points, it's not as though one can't be concerned with addressing problems directly and by proxy. It seems as though the space program, more than nearly any other program, always gets cast as an either-or choice against terrestrial concerns. I think finding a variety of solutions to problems -- some simple, some complex, some here, some there -- is the best way to ensure that one of them will work.

Tom FitzGerald said...

Humans AND robots, directly AND by proxy: exactly.

n8o said...

The debate will get blurry in coming decades the same way that the lines between humans and machines get blurry.

Today, robots are cheaper, but they're not human. But tomorrow, humans will be just as cheap - not because human bodies as we know them today will suddenly get as compact, light, and easy to maintain as machinery - but because machines will become more acceptable bodies for humans to inhabit.

In order for US to explore space and colonize our neighborhood, we don't have to send people in the bodies we know now. If we really want to, we can probably regenerate genetic humans at the target site after we establish ourselves in more adaptive machine forms that we can't currently inhabit today. That'll change this century, I think, and the whole robots vs humans debate will evaporate as it develops.