Yesterday, as I sat in front of TV flipping anxiously through the global media channels for news and commentary on the US elections, my attention was grabbed by an episode of “Hardtalk.” This hard-hitting BBC program is noted for its tough interrogations of leading global figures in the fields of politics, commerce, science, and culture. At first, it was just a welcome diversion, but I soon became intrigued by the conversation between presenter Stephen Sackur and his guest, the planetary geologist, Jacob Bleacher.
Dr. Bleacher is NASA’s Chief Exploration Scientist of the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) at the space agency’s headquarters. Quite a mouthful. Stripped of NASA speak, this guy’s job is to develop the tools and systems that will enable further human exploration of the Moon and on into deep space.
America’s enthusiasm for space exploration is undoubtedly on the rise once more. Still, it’s not the only nation with space aspirations—China, Russia, and India have also thrown their hats into the ring. Then, there are the entrepreneurial titans such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, George Bezos, and Yuri Milner, who are adding their egos and billions to the conquering of space. The race is well and truly on—back to the Moon, on to Mars, and then, in the immortal words of Buzz Lightyear, “to infinity and beyond.”
It is all undeniably exciting. A man, or a woman, probably both, will set foot on Mars by 2050. It seems impossibly soon, but that is what the space pundits reckon. Will they do it? Time will tell. In the meantime, I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s famous aphorism, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
I have little doubt that the majority, if not all, the scientists and thinkers involved in the space race, are principally invigorated by pushing human knowledge to the limit. I am less sanguine regarding the motivation of politicians and businessmen. For them, it is mostly about ego coupled with commercial gain. In other words, boasting rights and greed.
That said, what has this got to do with the fortunes of our planet? Quite a bit, especially when you consider the lessons of history which, sadly, our species seems to find almost impossible to learn.
Take just one example—the discovery of the sea route from Europe to the East. In the closing years of the 15th century, the Portuguese successfully rounded Africa’s southern tip. In doing so, they opened the sea route linking Europe with the East. Other European powers were quick to follow.
Considering the technology of the time, this was a remarkable achievement. Possibly on a par with, or even greater than putting humans on the Moon. The driver, of course, was not the quest for knowledge, but the desire to trade—to find a quicker, cheaper, and more reliable access to the riches of the East.
At first, a foothold in southern Africa was seen only as a revictualling station to serve the ships plying the route to India and Asia. But as the kings and queens of Europe learned more of the astonishing natural wealth waiting for them in Africa, they and their merchants began to see the continent as a prize worth having in its own right. It wasn’t long before the plundering of these assets fueled the continued development of Europe’s empires. A similar story played out in the Americas.
The exponential extraction of Earth’s bountiful gifts spanned the next five centuries and continues to this day. A hefty price has been paid, and now we are scrambling to save the last few remnants of relatively unspoiled wilderness on land and in the oceans. The biological diversity of the planet has been decimated, and the harm done to the thin, fragile, life-giving shroud that is our atmosphere is being dangerously compromised.
And now that we have rubbished Earth, are we going to leave it behind and start to impose our use-and-waste culture upon the universe? I fear that it will be so. The Moon will be nothing but a way station, its abundance of solar power enabling the extraction of the minerals we need to get us to Mars so that we can then trash that, too, as we reach even further to feed our insatiable needs.
NASA’s stated objective is to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024 and, in their words, to use “innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with our commercial and international partners and establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.” Impressive stuff, but “sustainable exploration?”
Forgive my cynicism, but nothing that we have done to date has been “sustainable.” What is the miracle that will make us behave sustainably in space when, already, there are some 6,000 tons of our space junk in low Earth orbit?
NASA has named the project Artemis, which seems somewhat ironic. Artemis was the Greek goddess of nature and chastity—the patron of girls and young women. Will she be able to protect space against the human species any better than she has been able to defend Earth against our profligate ways? I doubt it.
For all my mutterings, I really do want us to venture into the universe and beyond. After all, the drive to explore and discover is hard-wired into our DNA. But shouldn’t we first learn to live within our means here on Earth before we do so?