Photo taken from NASA.
Thursday's Globe and Mail, contained a report that excited me quite a lot while leaving Laura entirely unmoved:
Photographs taken by a spacecraft orbiting Mars indicate that active volcanoes may exist on the Red Planet, further eroding its image as a dead world and offering prime sites to prospect for signs of life.
Images from the European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter indicate geologically recent volcanic activity in the summit craters of five volcanoes, with some areas showing activity as recently as four million years ago.
Though long in human terms, four million years amounts to the most recent 1 per cent of Martian history, a strong suggestion that the planet retains a capacity for volcanic activity ...
In the past few years, researchers have found -- most recently with the U.S. twin robotic rovers still exploring Mars -- abundant evidence of ice at the surface and signs that water flowed there in the past.
There also are signs of recent volcanic activity. The latest work suggests that water could bubble up in hydrothermal springs on some of the planet's spectacular volcanic peaks.
"This is of great interest to biologists," said Michael Carr, a planetary scientist in the Menlo Park, Calif., office of the U.S. Geological Survey.
In recent years, researchers discovered that hydrothermal environments on Earth are remarkably rich in life.
Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor and hot springs on land provide the nutrients and energy to sustain rich ecosystems. Some biologists argue that life began in such places.
Martian hydrothermal systems probably would look much like the steaming pools and spouting geysers of Yellowstone National Park in the United States, Dr. Carr said. If such environments exist on Mars, investigations at those places would be crucial...
Laura doesn't understand my interest in astronomy and, especially, in the exploration (and eventual colonization - the sooner the better) of space, while Peterborough's own easyalchemy thinks that "Space Science is totally dumb." I fear such attitudes are likely fairly widespread among even you, Gentle Readers - and I know they are among those of the population in general with whom I otherwise have much in common - left/progressive political types, those interested in literature and the arts - you know, Liberal Arts types, whether or not they've attended university. (Those same types also often look down upon my prediliction for science fiction, thinking it "escapist", as if (to paraphrase an SF writer whose name escapes me) thinking about such things as ecology, over-population, war and peace, prejudice and the future in general is escapist. Nevertheless, my interest in science fiction is a related, but separate topic, with which I will deal no further here.)
A couple of weeks ago, Laura asked me to justify not so much my intellectual interest in things astrophysical, in particular, my support for "the space program" (the quotation marks indicate two things. First, that there is more than one space program kicking around; second, my support for the exploration of things outside the Terrestrial Sphere doesn't mean I approve of the details of how we are going about it now).
Since a star led those Magi guys to Christ's mythical manger, a quiet Christmas morning (which is when I started this eassy) seems as good a time as any to attempt my defence. This may get kind of long, so those Gentle Readers among you not interested in my thoughts on such matters should defnitely not
There are at least two common anti-space arguments out there.
First, that the exploration of space is too expensive, and that the money spent sending probes to Mars, et al would be better spent on Earth, at least so long as such evils as war and poverty, over-population and pollution, remain endemic over such large swaths of our planet.
Second, that we are not meant to live outside of our home planet, that long-term attempts to live outside of our protective blanket of atmosphere are doomed to failure, for reasons both physical and physological. In other words, sending people into space is not natural. Some argue that robot probes are okay, but that sending human beings into space is pointless.
Let me deal with the second argument(s) first.
The suggestion that human beings should not do anything because it is "not natural" has been irrelevant at least since the first cave-woman figured out how to start a fire. Since that time, nearly everything we do - beyond eating, fucking and sleeping - is on some level or another "unnatural". If we were not "meant" to fly rockets to the moon, we were not meant to fly airplanes to Australia, drive SUVs to the mall, or bicycles to work. The argument holds no water. We are animals in a world full of animals, and our propensity for making fire, music or airplanes is no more "unnatural" than beavers building dams, chimpanzees using twigs as tools to get at grubs or raccoons learning to unlatch our garbage sheds.
Whatever we do, "good" or "bad", is by definition "natural" - because we are natural. Going into space is natural not because we were in some way "meant" to do it, but because we can do it.
I realize the above does not mean we should go into space. Making war seems to be in our nature as well and I am not one who thinks that is either good or inevitable. And, while I think going into space is good, it is not inevitable either; we may collectively decide not to do it and, thereby, doom ourselves to extinction far sooner than otherwise might occur.
Despite my problems with so many of its members, I happen to like the human race and I think it important (in the sense that it is important to me; the universe doesn't care) that we survive and prosper.
The first argument - that the exploration and/or colonization of space is expensive and that that money would be much better spent on Earth - is, at first glance, much more compelling.
The exploration of space is expensive, no question. In 2005, NASA's budget alone will be $16.2 billion. And no question, lot of immediate, tangible good could be done with that money.
On the other hand, that $16.2 billion represents just a bit more than 0.031% of the projected deficit the US will incur in fiscal 2005; that $16.2 billion is less than 0.041% of the US Department of Defence's base budget for 2005. That $16.2 billion dollars is about twice the size of Canada's federal surplus for 2004 - if we wanted to, we could afford to pay the entire shot for NASA.
Argue against the space program in favour of third-world hospitals if you will, but I hope you will first go after military budgets and corporate-welfare tax-cuts for the likes of Haliburton Inc.
While space exploration and development is expensive, relatively speaking it is not very expensive. And it is important to keep in mind that, while the money is spent to explore outer-space, it is spent on Earth - paying the salaries of the men and women who build the rockets, mine and process the minerals needed to build them, develop the technologies and control the probes that are out there now.
There are also those who believe that the kind of science represented by NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn (and Europe's hitch-hiking probe, Huygens, soon to drop into Titan's mysterious clouds, is a waste of money because it is just "science for the sake of science". That is, that "pure science", the exploration of the unknown, that might or might not help to develop a better mousetrap next week, is a waste of time and money.
Better spend it on development of nearly-existing technologies, something that will "pay off" in the near-term. This attitude is endemic among corporations with quarterly reports on their minds and, tragically, is becoming entrenched at cash-starved universities, which really should know better. Research and development is all very good, very necessary, but so is pure science - not just "science for science's sake", but also for the pragmatic reason that studying what we don't know will inevitably pay off somewhere down the line.
All right, Gentle Readers, we've established (if only to my own satisfaction) that the cost of space exploration and development does not represent an unreasonable financial burden upon the human race. We have also seen that pure science is necessary to the long-term health of practical science (reasearch and development). We have not established that there are good reasons for spending even an infinitessimal amount of public money on space in particular. Nor have we developed a philosophical defence for such exploration - that is a topic for another essay.
Allow me to suggest four tangible reasons for my enthusiasm.
- Long-term survival of the human race;
- long-term health of the human race;
- technological development; and
- environmental protection
Survival I - Preventing Instant Extinction
There are a number of threats to the existence of all human life on earth, some self-inflicted, others not. Among them are:
- Asteroids and comets;
- nuclear war
It is a fact that there are a lot of asteroids out in the solar system. They range in size from grains of cosmic dust to hunks of rock 100s of kilometres in diameter. Unfortunately for our long-term future, solar orbits are not entirely stable and these rocks sometimes get caught by the Earth's gravitational field. Simply put, rocks sometimes fall from the sky. When big rocks fall from the sky they can do immense damage to our biosphere. Not only do such impacts cause horrendous local damage, through the immediate effects of the collision, but they throw up huge clouds of dust - a big enough impact could cause catastrophic cooling on a global scale and damage or destroy the ozone layer for up to a century.
That the risk of a large impact is relatively small at any given time does not mean it won't happen (again). Sooner or later, it will. And that would be the end of every hospital and human rights organization on the entire planet. A big enough impactor, and it would mean the end of all human life.
And the risk isn't just that this might happen "some day", far off in the nebulous future. Right now, NASA is tracking a 400 metre rock that just might hit us on April 13, 2029. That's not so far away, Gentle Readers. Granted that the risk is currently computed to be only 1.6%, and that it is only 440 metres in diameter (meaning it would be a local disaster should it hit, not a planetary catasthrophe), it nevertheless serves to illustrate the fact that big rocks do fall from the sky.
Long-term, an advanced space presence would permit us to prevent such impacts. With sufficient early-warning, it would not be difficult to send a probe out to such an object and set in place one or more rockets that would be able change its orbit enough to ensure it would miss our planet.
Sure, 2029 is 25 years in the future and this particular object will probably miss us anyway, but sooner or later, something big will hit us. We can protect ourselves, so we should protect ourselves.
Survival II - Preventing Racial Suicide
We live in a world awash in terrible weapons. Nuclear weapons in particular leave the human race beneath a damoclean sword that threatens our existence as a species. Establishing a human presence in space, independent of the Earth, would serve to guarantee our survival as a species, even if "we" make the ultimately stupid decision to commit planetary suicide. As a human being, I think our survival matters.
Living the Good Life
Yes, there is more to life than mere survival. A world in which 1 billion people - 1 out of every 6 of us - survives on the edge of starvation; in which even more of us suffer tyrannies large and small; in which war and the threat of war is a constant; and in which preventable diseases destroy millions of lives each year is far from the best of all possible worlds.
I have more than once come across glib pro-space arguments that suggest going into space would help to solve the population crisis or world hunger. In anything close to the near-term, this is ridiculous. Even moving 1 billion people to Mars would be an immense operation, taking decades, by which point we will have solved the population problem or there won't be a space program to finish the job in any case.
Nevertheless, the space program does promise tangible benefits for those of us - that is, for most of us - who will remain behind.
In a world where 1 billion Indians and Chinese are getting wealthy enough to aspire towards North American standards of living (and its concommitant energy and resource consumption), with global climate change charging down on us like Nature's pitbull, there are two things the exploration and development of space may give us.
First, new technologies. What they will be is (of course) an open question, but don't be surprised if new, more efficient energy systems come from above. Over the longer term, the solar system is awash in mineral resources that could put an end to treating the Earth as a strip-mine. Solar power satellites, a safe place to test potentially dangerous technologies (fusion reactors on the moon, for instance), come immmediately to mind. Things I can't imagine, of course, will also emerge.
Of course, none of this will solve our current problems. Historically, the human race has in fact very seldom solved its problems - rather, it has outgrown them. As one fer'instance, slavery was endemic to every civilization since the invention of agriculture and only the industrial revolution made it politically possible to (mostly - the job's not done yet) get rid it.
Our way of thinking isn't going to change fast enough to save us from - at best - a disaster that will see the entire world hungry and living in a state of contant war as we strip-mine the planet for what's left of its natural resources, as we fish the oceans dry and farm ourselves into a global Sahara. But increasing our collective wealth may give us the necessary time time for our thinking to change as well.
Without expanding, we don't have enough time to survive the crises that are coming upon us much faster than last week's Toronto cold-snap might lead us to believe.
It is my belief and hope that the human race is emerging from its long and bloody post-agrarian adolescence (the best evidence suggests its pre-agrarian childhood was far longer and even more bloody, but that, too, is a topic for another time). The exploration and development of outer space is not the next stage of our cultural evolution(s), but it may help us to get there; at the very least, it may ensure that we - as a species - survive beyond the next 100 years, even if we don't manage to pull things together here on Earth.
As a proportion of the wealth we have available it is miniscule - and would be miniscule if we were doing it properly. Columbus had a hell of a time convincing people with money that his expedition to "India" was worth the gamble. Space offers much more than the Americas ever could - and there aren't any civilizations next door for us to destroy when we go this time.
We can go, and we should go. And I fear I haven't convinced anyone who doesn't already agree with me.