Manned Spaceflight

Why manned spaceflight? Survival of the species.

We cannot stay confined to Earth, because the risks are too great and we deserve to survive. Our window of opportunity is short. Unmanned spaceflight has its place and we’ll continue to deploy communications satellites and other resource-saving tools that way, but the only way we’re going to get better at getting people off the planet and back is to practice, learn, and improve.

So why can’t we stay confined to Earth? Just look at the trends. In the distant past, a hungry lion could slay a small tribe. In the 1300s, black death could wipe out entire villages. In the last century, a single bomb could destroy a major city. You can see where the curve points. In an era of demented bigots thinking God is commanding them to kill civilians, and with evolution in fields like nanotechnology and germ warfare, the threat can outstrip even the amazing rate of population growth and before long will have the potential to end the life of our entire species. If we can spread to the nearby planets and solar systems, we might be able to outrun the waves of self-destruction so our brief time here has the potential to mean something in the longer term. If we kill ourselves, we lose. If our population-growth and resource-consumption rates outstrip the supply of materials we need to escape the Earth’s gravity, we’ll be this millennium’s replay of those who felled enough trees on Easter Island that ships could no longer be built. Again we lose.

Do we deserve to survive as a species? To be sure, we’ve got more than a fair share of hate and bigotry and inequality and suffering, but we’ve also got love and honor, sacrifice and curiosity, intelligence and honesty, and the sense of wonder and a sense of humor. I say we deserve a shot to see what we’ll be when we grow up.

Suppose you don’t buy those arguments. You think humanity would just be a boil on the butt of the galaxy. Or you disbelieve the population-growth curves, or, worse yet, you point out that war and starvation have a way of keeping the population in check. Excuse me, but that’s a solution? If you’re in that camp, at least think about simple quality of life--as long as life lasts here in this increasingly precarious world.

War after war has been fought over resources. Opinions vary, but I look at population-growth curves and shrinking mineral and natural-gas reserves and I’d be willing to bet the curves will continue to accelerate. Despite those people who say everyone alive could fit into the state of Texas, my idea of living doesn’t center on having my own paved two square meters and eating piped-in gruel.

Each new frontier gets more difficult and costly to explore, but each one dramatically broadens our knowledge and expands our resources. Forget about trivialities like Velcro and Tang. This next frontier might unveil new energy sources or merely continue the growth in the knowledge base that has doubled our lifespan, reduced our work week, allowed us to make significant repairs to our bodies, and created microwave popcorn.

Without exploring our world, a desert tribe might never have known that just over the hill was a lush valley packed with shade, lush plant life, and water. Who knows what lies ahead for us?

Maybe the meek will inherit the Earth. The brave are likely to discover places even more beautiful and exciting. The debt to those explorers and their families is one we’ll never be able to repay. The very least we can do is say thank you.

John E. Stith, 2003, Earth.

Copyright © 2003 by John E. Stith. This piece may be freely reprinted as long as attribution is maintained. This was originally distributed in the Palm Digital Media newsletter in response to the Columbia shuttle disaster.