The Difficulty of Being Cynical About Space Exploration

Posted on 30 August, 2012


At first glance, from a purely fiscal standpoint, space exploration seems like it should be one of the lowest fiscal priorities for a nation under incredible financial strain.  And that’s exactly where it is in the budget.  It hasn’t been appropriated more than 1% of the federal budget since 1993.  Granted, we are still talking about tens of billions of dollars here.  The 17 billion spent on NASA in 2011 would be nearly $350 for each person on government assistance in the US.  Anyone who is unemployed or on assistance probably knows how much that could help in day to day life, but there are plenty of other places to cut for what amounts to small change in a national budget measured in the trillions.

2010 National Budget - US

Where’s Waldo? NASA only accounted for 0.53% of the national budget in 2010.

So, on the occasion of Curiosity taking its first steps yesterday, it seems the perfect time to talk about what I see as the unmeasured benefits of space exploration.  I’ll leave it to others to argue the practical benefits achieved through space exploration, and the debate will surely rage on about whether or not the amount invested is worth the practical benefits.  What makes space exploration worth what we spend on it and more, is not just the practical benefits which can be easily commodified and turned to profit, it is also what space exploration means for human cognition.  We humans are endowed with five senses with which to experience the physical world.  These senses, and the cognitive faculties to interpret them and make useful conclusions based on them, have evolved parsimoniously to allow us to reproduce effectively.  We don’t sense what we don’t need–and/or biologically can’t afford–to sense to get that job done.

The universe is awash in potential information.  Electromagnetic radiation of all sorts passes through us which we use machines to interpret and decode so that we can understand it using our limited senses.  As far as I know, there hasn’t been anything showing that faculties allowing us to sense some of these aspects of the world (which are otherwise invisible to us through direct observation) could not possibly have evolved.  Instead, we are simply evolved with just the senses we needed to survive as a primitive species.

So, in the same way that man creates tools to extend its physical capacity, it has also created tools to extend its intellectual and cognitive capacity.  Human strength is limited, so we build levers, pulleys, and eventually cranes and powered machines.  In a direct analogue, human memory is limited in scope and veracity, so we create books and reference materials.  Human direct sensation is similarly limited, so we create microscopes to see the very small, telescopes to see the very far, video and radio broadcast which extend the range of our audio and visual senses, and radio arrays to detect directly inaccessible information emitted by celestial objects… Today, and uncountable years in the past.

Space exploration takes most of our senses and extends their reach and acuity farther from us, the observer-agent, than any of us could ever be from anything on Earth; a distance so vast that it was inconceivable until relatively recently in our history.  Now, with the successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory on August 6, we have extended the widest array of tools for sense and cognition to the surface of an alien planet yet.  While it doesn’t have the romantic value that a manned mission would present, it provides a way to do what a manned mission could do (with a 14 minute time delay) without putting actual humans at risk.

If we can consider remote video, remote audio, or telescopic and microscopic vision to be prosthetic senses we use to make up for our lack of innate ability to sense certain things, the Mars Science Laboratory is a prosthesis unlike any ever devised.  It not only extends our direct sense of vision, but provides us with new, high fidelity ways of extracting information from its environment that, while properly validated, are still relatively new to science on Earth.  And it does so over unfathomable gulfs of space, and is capable of providing data to scientists as though there were a human being there, performing various geologic and chemical experiments on extraterrestrial matter.

I hope that this is just a prelude.  Whether or not the MSL fulfills its mission by discovering life (or evidence of past life) on Mars, in order to better understand our universe and put our increasing repertoire of augmented senses to use unlocking its mysteries, we need to continue to extend our senses to every conceivable corner of the universe, from the depths of our oceans, towards the core of the Earth, and into the outer reaches of space.  Technology has shown to be the most effective way to expand the scope of our minds, so the next step is to expand the reach of our minds as far as technology allows.  And, given the relatively miniscule cost of these great advances thus far (not to mention the practical benefits accrued), we would do ourselves no favors to pack up shop and keep our minds tethered to the Earth.  This laboratory isn’t just a set of tools and instruments to gather impersonal data.  It’s more than that.  It is us up there.

MSL Shadow - Mount Aeolis in Background

You’ve come a long way, baby!