Humans vs. Robots

Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.

(NASA / WALL-E image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures /Pixar)

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McCurdy: It doesn’t go beyond Mars. Even if you could terraform Mars into a new Earth over 1,000 years, maybe the dreams of some space pioneers will come true and it becomes a place that humans could live. And that would be fascinating—I’m certainly in favor of a multi-planet species. But it stops there. The outer solar system is not going to be very conducive to human exploration. That will largely be done by machines. If humans are going to go anyplace else, it’s going to be outside of the solar system. And that raises the question, “Well, how do you do that?”

A&S: Let me throw out a couple of the conventional arguments for sending humans into space. One is that “it’s in our DNA,” or maybe just in American culture, to “conquer frontiers.”

Launius: First off, I reject the premise. That’s not what defines America, and it’s also not a very attractive feature in many respects—displacing peoples who were subjugated in a brutal way in some instances, and pillaging the land and extracting from it all of the resources without any thought about the future. That’s not a very attractive metaphor for an expansion beyond this planet, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve heard lots of NASA folks say, “It’s in human nature to want to explore, to climb the mountain and cross the river and do all those sorts of things.” That’s one instance of exploration, but only one instance. One might suggest that the truest exploration you’ll ever undertake is an exploration of your own self-awareness, which might not involve physical movement anywhere. So, even if you think that exploration is somehow in our genes, it takes a variety of forms.

As a historian, I tend to look at these things with a long view. And if you look at American expansion and exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not because we were just seeking to explore. It was because we were in search of resources, in search of wealth. That seems to be one of the true problems with spaceflight thus far. We have not found those economic gains in space. We didn’t find anything when we landed on the moon that made us want to go back. Had we found it, we would have been going back over and over again. And that’s why it’s been such a tough sell since 1972.

A&S: Another argument for humans in space is that we need to move “off planet” because Earth could be destroyed at any minute—either from an asteroid strike or from our own doing. I have to say, that argument has always bothered me. I don’t like the idea of having a “backup planet” that gives us license to do whatever we want with this one.

McCurdy: Roger and I are very clear on this: The notion that humans are stuck on this planet is a very disappointing one to us. I built rockets when I was a kid, and was a space exploration fan. We would very much like humans to diversify, to spread themselves galactically. But I find the “asteroid strike” argument a bit strange. If we have a trillion dollars to defend ourselves against an asteroid strike, why would we move a couple hundred people to Mars instead of spending the money to protect the eight billion that are already here? That doesn’t seem very democratic to me. I think you’d invest your resources in asteroid deflection.

As a species, we have prospered because we have dispersed, and there’s no reason to think we can’t continue that in the interstellar realm. But you’ve got to get into the question of exactly what part of humanity is dispersing, and how does it happen. The von Braun paradigm says you take a human being, you put him on Mars, you have a colony, and all of a sudden Mars becomes the second Earth. Well, that’s biologically unreasonable. It’s not likely to happen.

The people who live on Mars won’t be Homo sapiens. They will have their roots in humanity, but they will be something different—Homo cosmos. You’re not going to move humans off the Earth like fish in a bubble. Transformations will occur, either planned or unplanned.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when NASA had a lot of money and no one was looking, the agency sponsored a series of studies on how humans might speed up the process of evolution if we spread to other planets. Why rely upon the forces of natural evolution when you’re a technologically advanced society? Why wait ten thousand or ten million years for nature to make these adjustments to different planetary conditions when you can speed it up? It’s biological engineering, some of it mechanical, some of it genetic. You can hardly avoid reading about the transhumanism movement on the Internet these days. Some people believe that within 30 years, humans will have control over their own biological makeup through genetic engineering.

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