Issue 4, 1 February 2006 -- 37th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. Tom Harris and Charles Laughlin on why robots are not enough: people want to travel in space in person.
  2. The space index measures human activity in space since 1961.
  3. Royal Aeronautical Society launches its own study of UK policy on manned spaceflight.

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Automatons necessary, but not sufficient, for a proper exploration of space

By Tom Harris, M.Eng. and Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D.

(This is the original of an article published in 2004, in a considerably shortened version, in the Globe and Mail, and in other papers including the Houston Chronicle.)

Following a year of tragedy and disappointment, Saturday's successful landing of the Spirit robotic spacecraft on Mars and the spectacular comet flyby a few days earlier were crucially needed confidence builders for the space program. Scientists are thrilled with the quality of the data received and, for many of them, this is a sufficient prize that will keep them busy for years.

But, for most of society, such accomplishments, necessary and impressive though they are, are not enough. WE want go. People yearn to explore space and the planets, if not ourselves personally, at least vicariously through our astronaut proxies.

This is not merely a science fiction driven fantasy (although science fiction helps us flesh out our aspirations and better envision alternative possible futures). Manned space exploration satisfies a basic human drive to engage in geographic exploration in a way no other activity does in today's world. The fact that Star Trek became a global phenomena suggests that there is far more to the popular appeal to "boldly go where no one has gone before" than most people understand. Indeed, the drive to explore is an important characteristic of the way in which the higher orders of the human nervous system function -- the awareness of new physical frontiers is essential to the health of humanity. University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney labels humans "the exploring animal" and maintains that a withdrawal from the exploration and development of space would put the brakes on our cultural and intellectual advancement. A quick look at the history of our species shows why satisfying this urge is a crucial part of what it means to be fully human.

The ancestors of modern human beings began as a population of only a few hundred thousand individuals in the tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Around 1-2 million years ago, they began to expand into new habitats and gradually migrated into Europe and Asia, and from there into Australia, Oceania, the New World and, eventually, as modern human beings, even to Antarctica. And the migration did not stop there. People have now lived in "colonies" under the sea in submarines and research stations, briefly on the moon, and in low Earth orbit.

In other words, it is in our very nature to explore and expand outwards into available spaces. And it is clearly an extension of this drive that motivates our intense desire for a manned space program. Relying only upon unmanned probes and robots, however necessary these technologies may be for fully discerning the scientific picture of the universe, is unsatisfying to the human spirit, and, has the effect of blunting people's interest in space exploration.

The reason for this is simple. Human consciousness tends to lose awareness of technologies as long as they are doing their job. We remain cognizant only of the effects of the technologies. For example, we marvel at the beautiful images produced by the Hubble telescope, but lose any awareness of the telescope itself. Only when some of our kind, our fellow humans beings, are out there working with the technologies do we tend to remain aware of the new environment of space. People identify with astronauts, who, in a very real psychological and spiritual sense, take us with them when they go. Robots and other machines are not fulfilling substitutes.

Not surprisingly, science reporters therefore assign human attributes to robotic space explorers whenever possible. Commentators tell us that Spirit is "sending postcards to Earth", "talking" to the orbital craft, "sleeping" at night and "waking up" to the Beatles' tune "Good Morning, Good Morning". The fact that mission controllers did indeed use music to activate the craft and speak of it as being "healthy", instead of merely "operational", suggest that they too are trying to anthropomorphize the spacecraft to augment their own and the public's attachment to their creation. The fact that the rover's robotic arm moves in much the same way as a human arm with an elbow and wrist and the mast-mounted stereoscopic cameras are about the height of an adult's eyes suggests that even the spacecraft's designers were influenced by basic human anatomical structure.

But, no matter how human-like we perceive them to be, robots will never replace red-blooded astronauts. Sharing adventures vicariously with other people has been a psychological balancing factor since our ancestors began telling stories around the fire. Even today, tales of exploration by human adventurers tend to balance the often negative mind states generated by people facing the stresses and frustrations of daily life in a modern technocratic society.

Throughout history, our most treasured stories have been about heroes that do remarkable things and have extraordinary adventures. Human beings need heroes, for they personify the drive of people to accomplish the seemingly impossible, to see beyond the horizons of mundane human limitation. Heroes signify the very best that we can become -- they are archetypes taken flesh and their exploits are idolized and mythologized. We require heroes and adventurers to make our dreams and visions real. By sending special people out into space we embody our shared (and frequently unconscious) vision of what we humans may one day become -- citizens of the solar system, citizens of the Milky Way, citizens of the universe.

Yet, in a way, this is nothing new. Historians show us that geographic exploration has been an invigorating activity for civilizations throughout history. Whether it was the European exploration of the world, the massive Chinese expeditions along the coasts of Southeast Asia, India and Africa or the impressive reed boat voyages of the Polynesians and Micronesians in the vast Pacific, there has always been a strong correlation between geographic exploration and general cultural vitality. Arizona State University historian Stephen Pyne asserts, "Choosing to explore the solar system will not, by itself, assure us continued status as a world civilization. But choosing not to explore will ensure that we will not retain that stature."

Clearly, while robots are important proxy precursors, preparing the way for astronaut visits to the planets and beyond, they should never be promoted as a replacement for humans as explorers of the universe.

Finally, the exploration and development of space is a catalyst, a driver, if you will, encouraging the next phase in the evolution of our species. As a consequence, many social scientists maintain that the establishment of permanent, self-sufficient, off-world presence is crucially important at this time in history.

As humans move into interplanetary space, and learn to live permanently in synthetic habitats like the International Space Station, various types of biological selection will come into play that will advance human evolution.

One type of selection is referred to as the "founder effect". Each movement outwards to face new and more difficult permanent living conditions will be accomplished by a very select group, people who possess the physiological and mental attributes to survive in ever more challenging conditions. These pioneers will combine the very best characteristics of humanity -- good health, the ability to work well with other people, advanced systems consciousness (the understanding that they are part of an environmental system that must be properly cared for) and of course high intelligence -- all characteristics we urgently need at this time in history to solve our global problems. Space colonization will have the effect of greatly accelerating the adoption of these characteristics as successive waves of humanity move out to settle the high frontier.

Finney maintains that "the space revolution is leading humanity into an entirely new and uncharted social realm." He predicts that the act of settling space "will change humankind utterly and irreversibly." As much as possible with the enormous distances involved, we will certainly want to remain in touch with our extraterrestrial cousins for they will become our teachers in ways we have yet to imagine.

Planets that are home to indigenous sentient life are like eggs nurturing the development of a chick inside. There is a limited window of opportunity between the time the chick is able to crack open its shell and the time when the yolk runs out. We are in such a window now. The international space program is our species' collective chick chipping away at the shell. However, we need to understand that, just as the chick must marshal its energies at just the right time to break out of its first home to survive, the conditions and resources requisite for human space colonization will not last forever either. As earthly problems mount, we may soon lack the strength and resources to move into this new frontier. If we're really serious about space exploration and development, then we must make it happen soon.

Dr Laughlin is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Religion at Carleton University.

Tom Harris is an Ottawa-based engineer and science and technology writer.

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(2) The Space Index -- a measure of human activity in space

An index of manned activity in space can be compiled by totting up the total man-days (including woman-days, obviously -- "man" is here used in the sense of "man versus machine", not its gender sense) spent beyond Earth's atmosphere.

This index reflects the numbers of people travelling in space, multiplied by how long they stay there.

Check out the graph of man-days in space in Mark Wade's review of 2004 at http://www.astronautix.com/articles/thew2004.htm (please let me know if you have seen this graph reproduced elsewhere online).

A modest start to the space age leaps to a Skylab peak in 1973 of 418 man-days.

Activity then falls to about half of this annual value, until 1978, which logs a total of 489 man-days thanks to the Salyut-6 breakthrough.

1981 and 1986 are quiet years: in 1981 Salyut-6 was winding down, and in 1986 Mir was not yet continuously occupied, as well as the Challenger disaster halting US flights. But otherwise the index makes steady progress throughout the 1980s towards a new peak above 1550 man-days, covering the 4-year period 1994-1997.

The best year so far for the human presence in space is 1997, at 1746 man-days. This was the post-Challenger heyday of the Shuttle (8 launches), as well as seeing continuous occupation of Mir (which lasted in fact almost a full decade, from Sept. 1989 to Aug. 1999).

There is then a collapse down to a low of 694 man-days in 2000, due to problems with the Shuttle fleet (launches down to 5 in 1998 and 2000, only 3 in 1999), and the breathing-space between Mir and the ISS.

The recovery in 2001-2002 almost matched the mid-90s peak, at around 1600 man-days per year. But then Columbia disintegrated, forcing the index back down to 1011 man-days in 2003, 794 in 2004, and 899 last year (including 97 man-days contributed by the unfortunately misnamed "Return to Flight" of the Shuttle).

A value around 800 man-days corresponds to two astronauts on a station plus occasional visitors and the odd Chinese flight. With luck, 2006 should clear the 1000 man-day mark, assuming that there are at least two Shuttle launches.

But the index looks set to meander within the range of about 1000 to 1500 or so for some years to come, until perhaps either orbital space tourism or a new great power competition between the US, Russia and (possibly) China gives life in space new impetus.

-- Stephen Ashworth

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(3) The Royal Aeronautical Society's forum on UK in space

Pat Norris, of the RAeS space group, has circulated the following message:

Quote from circular e-mail from "RAeS Space Group", space(at)raes.org.uk

The RAeS Space Group recently published a discussion paper on "Humans in Space: UK Policy" and now invites your contribution to the debate.

Those of you who are already members of the Royal Aeronautical Society will have seen the Discussion Paper on the role of humans in space exploration in the December 2005 issue of the Society's magazine, Aerospace Professional. RAeS members were encouraged to submit comments on the issues raised in the Paper by 31 January 2006 (since extended owing to response).

Read the discussion paper by going to the RAeS Space Group web site www.raes.org.uk/space/ See entry headed "Humans in Space: UK Policy" and follow link.

The Discussion Paper attempts to be logical and balanced. However, on a personal note I would like to say that the paper has been born out of long standing frustration at the state of manned spaceflight. I helped (in a very small way) to put the first humans on the Moon in the 1960s as manager of Apollo navigation at TRW in Houston, and then watched as NASA took bad decision after bad decision concerning human spaceflight programmes. I gave vent to my frustration in evidence submitted to hearings of a House of Lords Committee on space about 20 years ago, but only now have felt that the time was right to initiate a substantive discussion on UK policy.

I would very much welcome your involvement in reviewing UK policy on human spaceflight, and thereby helping to create a balanced and sustainable programme of solar system exploration.

This discussion paper by the Space Group is the start of a RAeS initiative to help inform UK policy on human spaceflight to be followed by a Forum in Spring 2006 at which the issues will be debated. Opinions are sought on the issues raised and questions posed in this paper to help inform debate at that forum. Please send your comments to space@raes.org.uk Responses received by 28 February will be included in helping to shape the programme of follow-up activities which is now beginning to emerge.

-- S.A.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail newsletter devoted to news and comment on the emerging space frontier from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa(at)astronist.demon.co.uk.


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