In a few months it will be 40 years since the last man walked on the Moon. Unless, of course, one wants to believe in the Apollo 18 story. I don’t, but the 70s retro look of the film and its beautiful lunar images made me remember that night 43 years ago, in 1969, when we watched Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon.
Why did we give up space, and when do we go back? Yes, yes, we have telecom and Earth watching satellites, robotic planetary missions that produce a lot of good science and all that. But… I want to see people in space. Don’t you?
3 years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps, the IEET blog had a post and a poll on Should off-Earth expansion be a high priority for humanity? The options given in the poll were: No, we should devote all our resources to solving current problems. – We need to expand, but with biologically modified transhumans. – Yes, to protect our species from extinction in all-out war. – No, because humans will never survive long in space. – Yes, in order to preserve Earth from further ecological damage. – Expansion, yes, but with robots first and humans later. – Other: (enter another option). I voted Other: YES!!
In some sense I tend to agree with the option “We need to expand, but with biologically modified transhumans.” Or, more precisely, I think we will expand, but as post-biological uploads. I am sure our ultimate destiny in space will be, in the beautiful words of Sir Arthur:
“And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.
In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.
But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.”
Ultimately, I think space will not be colonized by squishy, frail and short-lived flesh-and-blood humans, but by uploads. Our post-biological mind children, implemented as pure software based on human uploads and AI subsystems, will colonize the universe with suitable robotic actuators. As Sir Arthur says, they will not build spaceships, because they will be spaceships. Eventually, post-biological humans will travel between the stars as radiation and light beams.
It may then seem that it makes more sense to wait for the development of mind uploading technology and the Singularity before planning to go to the stars. There are a lot of valid arguments in support of this position, but I think they miss a very important point:
The Singularity will not happen spontaneously, because technology does not develop itself. People advance science and develop technologies, and important advances require motivated and enthusiastic people acting together. We need ambitious space projects to fire our imagination, sense of wonder and interest in science, like in the 60s, otherwise there might be no Singularity, or not the Singularity that we wish to see.
The space program of the 60s has given our generation the motivation and drive that we needed. If we want to have a chance to escape biology and become immortal post-humans roaming the universe as uploads we need to go back to space now, in our squishy human bodies, for our mental health as a species, to inspire younger persons and incite them to study science and engineering.
So, we must support crewed space missions, going back to the Moon, planetary missions, and visionary projects like the 100-year Starship.
Watching the Moon knowing that other people are living and working there would be a powerful pointer to future, even more daring cosmic journeys, that could contribute to the mental health of the zeitgeist and give us a renewed confidence in the relevance of our lives on this little planet. Not everyone can be a space explorer, but we are all partners and stakeholders in the cosmic future of our species and our “manifest destiny” among the stars. This is a powerful meme that could result not only in much more support for space, but also in a more positive and proactive attitude on other pressing issues, at a moment of our history where we need positive thinking, confidence and optimism.
The last paragraph is from my paper on A Virtual World Space Agency, published by Futures (Futures 41 (2009) pp. 569-571) (link). I am not supposed to post the full text here (others have posted it, if you do some googling you will find it), but I wish to post some edited excerpts:
We need new initiatives able to ignite the imagination of people, especially young people, all over the planet. I have worked for many years in public space agencies, for example at the European Space Agency (ESA) in the 80s and 90s. I used to say that, despite the scientific value of robotic planetary missions, the practical value of communication, earth observation and navigation satellites, and the pragmatism of a cautious approach to crewed space missions based on the shuttle and the space station, their impact on the public at large was nil. In order to support spending money in space, people need to see other people in space taking risks to do momentous things. This is the simple truth that every marketing or advertising professional knows, but paper pushers in government and industry have forgotten.
For the same reason, aseptic orbital or planetary missions do not sufficiently stimulate young people to study science and pursue careers in technology and space, hence also decreasing the available expertise in terms of both quantity and quality. I used to say that the emphasis on cost-effective pragmatic mission with only a scientific return and no PR value would kill both public and political support for space, and the facts have given me reason.
To my knowledge, nobody said this better than William Sims Bainbridge:
“To become fully interplanetary, let alone interstellar, our society would need another leap — and it needs that leap very soon before world culture ossifies into secure uniformity. We need a new spaceflight social movement capable of giving a sense of transcendent purpose to dominant sectors of the society.”
We need grand cosmic visions and daring exploration projects to muster the drive, energy and commitment to steadily give our best contribution in our chosen fields. Marshall T. Savage published a tentative space exploration and settlement plan, based on current (at the time of writing) science and technology, and praised by Sir Arthur as “an extraordinary book” in his preface. Savage appreciated that space exploration cannot be disentangled from other industrial and social concerns, and that space settlement will be more a political issue than an engineering problem, and dedicated considerable space to analyzing the best organizational structures and strong criticism to the “standard model” based on national space agencies and big corporations.
Are national space agencies going to take us to space? Are international space agencies going to take us to space? Are corporations going to take up to space? In short, no, no, and no. In today’s world, the obsolete nation-states are part of the problem and not part of the solution. International organizations are paralyzed by power struggles between different national interests. And corporations cannot be expected to see beyond next year’s financials.
Space budgets are decreasing in the western world, including in the U.S., and corporations are taking the lead in the development and operations of space technologies and transportation systems. A private SpaceX rocket will launch the robotic Dragon space capsule toward the International Space Station as early as next month, Virgin Galactic continues to ferry tourists to low Earth orbit, and tens of international teams are competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. These are very welcome developments and I look forward to seeing the private sector play a bigger role in space, but I don’t trust corporations to lead our future in space.
Who should take the lead? I see a clear role for global and well organized groups of citizens sharing the same interests. In the past, concerted actions by distributed groups were made difficult by the distances involved, but today’s information technology effectively eliminates geography as a significant limit (unless, of course, nation-states interfere by putting artificial limits in place in order to protect their power). Information technology is also reducing the difficulty of informed decision-making and concerted action by large groups of people. Direct global democracy and focused action is today possible thanks to the Internet, through what Savage called a ‘‘Human Laser,’’ people acting ‘‘in synchronous harmony [. . .] creat[ing] a coherent beam of intent.’’
Why not forming a global P2P space agency of the people, by the people, and for the people? Open participation with an open source model is the best way to inspire and excite people. We need an open space agency, crowd-sourced and crowd-funded. Such a World Space Agency, whose members are not nation-states but individual citizens acting as a focused P2P laser, could act in the best long-term interest of our species and prepare the way for our journey to the stars.
This is the headline that I wish to see: “After successful crowd-funding on Kickstarter, Apollo 18 prepares for lift-off.”
Image 1 Apollo 18, film, screenshot
Image 2 Star child, screenshot from 2011
Image 3 Starship concept art by the British Planetary Society
Giulio Prisco is a physicist and computer scientist, and former senior manager in the European space administration. Giulio works as a consultant and contributes to several science and technology magazines. In 2002-2008 he served on the Board of Directors of Humanity Plus, of which he was Executive Director, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Italian Transhumanist Association. He is often in Hungary, Italy and Spain. You can find more about Giulio at his blog and home page.