The final launch of space shuttle Atlantis on 7/8/2011, Cape Canaveral. Credit: Julie Doyle
At 15, I began scuba diving as part of a volunteer group dedicated to monitoring coral health. We learned how to dive, how to conduct transects of sea beds, and how to report the data back to the WWF. The first time I entered a vibrant coral reef (on the Mindoro Island coast in the Philippines), a funny thing happened. The ocean washed away my childhood fantasies of space travel. I later stopped reading science fiction (I had been obsessed with the Ender’s Game series), partially because nothing described in books could compare to what I saw in real life under the sea.
As of yesterday, NASA’s human space flight program done. Many people have written about their disappointment that the human space program is over, and I understand that. The sense of adventure captured by astronauts is undeniable. NPR’s recent piece “So You Want to be an Astronaut,” traces this affection, and even attracted over a thousand personal testimonies to their Facebook page from people who still dream of launching into space.
I have a different opinion on the program’s demise. In the hopes of finding a silver lining in the end of the astronaut program, and to push that expeditionary spirit in another direction, this post gives five reasons why extraterrestrial exploration isn’t that great. And after all, there’s so much else to explore…
1. Moonscapes are pretty barren (probably mars too): While fascinating from afar, the moon proved that scale can ruin the whole experience. Once you get down to the rock and dust, it’s not that cool. The most interesting life in our solar system is right here on earth. The ocean, for example, is another world, teeming with life, waiting to be explored. And it is beautiful. If I could choose between walking on the moon and scuba diving in a coral reef, I’d choose the one with the beautiful creatures and dynamic ecosystems. Part of our fascination with space, I think, is the desire to fly and transcend our terrestrial limitations. I’d encourage you to look down instead of up. Here’s Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who pioneered the scuba tank and underwater film making:
“I used to dream of flying–the classic attempt to get away from the reality of earth. But since I have been diving, I have not had the dream. Diving is the most fabulous satisfaction you can experience. I am miserable out of water. It is as though you had been introduced to heaven, and then found yourself back on earth. The spirituality of a man cannot be completely separated from the physical. But you have made a big step toward escape simply by lowering yourself under water.” (from Time Magazine)
2. Robots take better photographs: The best thing about space is the views, and the best way to see the sights is via satellite. The biggest accomplishment of the space program in terms of storytelling might be “earthrise,” in 1968. Now that we can take great photos from space with robots… and I think that’s good enough? Besides, many of the most amazing photos are taken with infrared cameras, documenting phenomena outside the human sphere of perception.
3. No even astronauts think there’s much scientific value in human spaceflight: I watched this interview with Alan Shepard on the Charlie Rose Show that really affirmed this for me (Shepard was the first American in Space and one of the few men to walk on the moon, where he played golf). During the interview, Shepard never mentions science. He talks about achievement, power, possibility, and cooperation, but all without really saying ‘this is how we can make the world a better place… this is what we’ve discovered.’ Finally, Charlie Rose asks the question on my mind:
“Why was it necessary to put a man on the moon?”Well, because it was there and because it was attainable,” Shepard says in response
4. Uncontrollable Danger: and in the scariest way. I’ve done a lot of scary things: rafting the Grand Canyon, jumping off of 60 foot cliffs, diving down to sixty feet with coral snakes and eels. But you’re always mostly in control in your own safety. Not in a space ship. On a space ship your life is at the mercy of mission control, ground mechanics, and the integrity of little black wing tiles. As Chris Reid posted on NPR’s facebook page “I was in third grade in Orlando when the shuttle Challenger exploded – watched it fall out if the sky outside. That marked the last of my shuttle fantasies.”
5. An expensive taxpayer-funded trip: There are various debates over the cost of human spaceflight. The best and most articulate one is here. I’m happy to leave the cost and the risks for the tourists.