Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why Space.... revised and improved

I was inspired by this post by Rick Tumlinson about why spaceflight is necessary for mankind, and have created a whole new blog that I'm dedicating to my musings about spaceflight, the politics of space, and how I think my own role in trying to develop the frontier above us is working out. I've been meaning to do this for some time now, so this is more of an excuse than anything else, but I do have a few things to say about space that I hope others will pay attention to.

This piece by Mr. Tumlinson is a good start, but I think the need for space if far more important than most people can believe. I've spent some time as a part-time amateur historian and I think it is important to look at what happened when the world had frontiers to look for. One of the huge roles of a frontier is that it gives people room to experiment.... experiment with governments, experiment with science, experiment with social conventions, and frankly even experiment with science. America as a nation would not have existed without a frontier being available for it to be created into.

What happens when you get people "out there" on the frontier? By far and away the most important thing is that those people encounter very new situations and new problems that need to be solved. They develop tools, ideas, and experiences that are unique to their situation.  More importantly, those tools, ideas, and experience come back to the rest of us and enrich all of our lives.  This has happened with each group of people who have gone some place new, and has already happened with spaceflight.

While I'm rather critical of those who would claim that Teflon, Tang, and Velcro are "spin-off products of NASA" (not a single one of those can legitimately claim that distinction), there certainly have been technologies that either benefited significantly from their use with spaceflight.  New materials had to be developed to work in the harsh environments of space, and in some cases old technologies were re-examined in new ways.  A suit of armor once built for Henry VIII of England was used as a prototype for designing a space suit that was eventually used in the Gemini and Apollo missions.

Art and photographs can convey an impression that is inspiring by itself.  This particular image is to me very humbling:

If you think it is just a bunch of smears on an otherwise wasted bunch of space, look a whole lot more closely. On the band furthest to the right is a small blue pixel that can only be seen because of the contrast from everything else.  Carl Sagan directed the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it was leaving the Solar System to take this photograph from about 3.7 billion miles away, and a quote from his is very appropriate:

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." -- Carl Sagan
I also want to show one more very inspiring photo:

Taken from the Hubble Space Telescope during a repair mission on flight STS-82 (the Space Shuttle Discovery), Joseph R. Tanner not only is seen in a beautiful photograph, but shows a real person actually in space doing important work that could not be done in any other way.  I could show literally hundreds of awe inspiring photos to supplement these, but instead of making this post something of a photo gallery, I'm going to leave these two photos to represent at least some of the inspiration that we simply would not have without people going into space.

To put it on a simple level that perhaps can be explained another way:  By putting people in a new situation that nobody else has ever been in before, they will literally think very new thoughts that have never been thought up by anybody else in the entire existence of mankind.  Being in a new environment will challenge those people to do something extraordinary, and those thoughts will in turn be applied to other problems, including problems we have here on the Earth.

I've heard the argument offered countless times, why not spend the resources currently being dumped "on the space program" instead to solve problems like world hunger or creating a cure for various infectious diseases.  Besides the notion that many of those other problems already are receiving plenty of funding and are being worked upon by very talented people, I am suggesting that the journey into space actually inspires many people to the point to also solve those other tough problems, and it gives better perspective on what the real issues are for solving those problems.  As I said, new tools and new experiences are gained by being on the frontier, and those tools can be applied to solving other problems that until now have been unsolvable.

Something that I need to point out before closing this post is that we are already in space in a major way with our civilization.  For commercial purposes alone there are billions of dollars being spent each year on activities in space, usually in the form of telecommunications satellites, but it can involve other activities as well.  With navigation, weather forecasting, and photographic mapping of the Earth as all activities that are significantly enhanced from space, the question isn't even now why should we be going into space but rather what should we be doing next.  The area close to the Earth but in space in some ways really can't be called a frontier any more, as the technology to get there and the study of that environment are pretty well established.  In future posts I will be talking more about commercial spaceflight efforts, but it is sufficient to note we are in space as a people.  What is important is that those who would stop this effort need to be blocked or at least questioned so far as to simply let those of us who wish to dream and move into space would be allowed to do so.