The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Apollo 11
Will future generations have the interest and willingness to support human space exploration? (credit: NASA)

Exploring space, finding ourselves

Why we must always have an “Out There” out there

<< page 1: toward dystopia?

IV. Preventing the death of intellect

Of course, other sources of inspiration besides a starry night sky can foster rich intellectual development. Some that could spark a fire might be fleeting: a particular painting, an assigned book, a photograph, a complex dance routine or piece of music. Others might persist as ever-present backdrops, nurturing imaginations in realms beyond the limits of their everyday. And some may reside in unexpected places. Did steam locomotives with their marvelously complex linkages of turning, cranking, sliding parts—all out in plain sight—help carry us from the Golden Spike to Tranquility Base? That’s difficult to say, but the innovative engineers who created that astounding century of technological progress did come of age during railroading’s Age of Steam.

Classrooms everywhere

In my essay two years ago I noted that even simple tasks—any real actions more challenging than clicking a mouse or finger-sliding an app—have done and still can do their part toward a mind’s growth, especially for the youngest. All such activities, especially when interlaced with deeper learning, help to mature an intellect. Many parents and teachers know this intuitively and do what they can whenever and wherever they can to keep their children challenged in these ways and alert to the world around them. Classrooms do not reside only in school buildings.

And, when employed properly, “they” aren’t just classrooms but become playgrounds for each developing mind. They can be as small and simple as a high-chair tray with an ordered arrangement of Cheerios or as vast as the heavens above. And others, perhaps the most important of all, can encompass both: the playgrounds of intellectual possibilities.

It is not outrageous, then, to claim that who we are and what we have achieved as humans derive in no small measure from our having been explorers.

One particular “playground” of this type has also inspired humanity for centuries and may have served just as important a role in expanding human consciousness: human exploration of the limitless frontier. For millennia, determined explorers sought new discoveries at the edge, and beyond the edge, of their people’s known lands. This timeless succession began with crossings into new territory on foot; it advanced to sailing across vast seas to new continents; more recently it became a sequence of reaching higher and faster in the atmosphere; and, only five decades ago, it took the literal form of landing on another world. How deeply appropriate it was that Neil Armstrong marked that “giant leap” with a single footstep.

While succeeding generations of explorers, often at great risk, continued to vault the chasms between the known and the unknown, their society’s younger generations back home came of age. Those children’s worldviews were shaped in no small way by their awareness of these explorations, the possibilities they engendered, and the character they required. Perhaps the most profound realities impressed upon their developing intellects were the most obvious: that lands beyond their own existed and that persons like themselves could reach them.

Can we today, with our jaded condescension toward the past and cynicism about the future, even begin to grasp how vitally important these two revelations were to their growing minds? Can we appreciate how they may have helped to form the personalities of those thousands who went on to achieve greatness across all human pursuits?

Perhaps not, but I am confident that we here at least will admit that an awareness of exploration—and not necessarily just space exploration—has shaped our intellects, even if we can’t remember precisely how.

New territory, new understanding, new us

Human exploration of new places and its fostering of intellect almost inevitably contributed to a new type of exploration, the pursuit of deeper understanding of both the natural universe and ourselves as thinking social beings. Under the probing of our increasingly-clever investigations, the ocean depths, Earth’s biosphere, the human organism, and thousands of other “territories” have continued to reveal their secrets. And let us not forget one of the most iconic images ever, exploration or no: Apollo 8’s Earthrise. This picture’s profundity derived not from its pointing outward but inward, back to ourselves. Did we really understand our place in the physical universe before explorers Borman, Lovell, and Anders brought home that picture? Expanding human consciousness, indeed.

It is not outrageous, then, to claim that who we are and what we have achieved as humans derive in no small measure from our having been explorers. And this isn’t only because frontiers test the best in us. What may be asubstantially more important is that, down through the centuries, young developing minds became aware that seemingly boundless frontiers existed and that humans were capable of conquering them. Maturing intellects who learn such simple truths form expansive perspectives about themselves and their relationship to the universe, including that which is can be exceeded, that which is unknown can be probed and understood, and that which daunts us can be overcome.

Yet today’s entertainment-obsessed culture seems bent on abandoning this vital truth. Exploration—the genuine exploration of new frontiers and new knowledge—has become marginalized, shunted off to the edges of society’s mainstream in terms of monetary investment and media representation. Even spaceflight’s cost shrinks when compared to what’s spent on some popular industries. Scientists and engineers are stereotyped as geeks and what they study is dismissed as too esoteric for common consumption, while those pushing back new frontiers—if they aren’t already denigrated as scientists—are deemed eccentric adventurers. The STEM problem runs much deeper than a mere choice of careers.

The kids may be connected online nearly 24/7, but that doesn’t mean they actually see stories about spaceflight, or exploration of any sort.

But isn’t it the job of teachers to ensure that our children learn of these activities and master the necessary skills to continue them? Yes, but the less that mainstream culture values such pursuits, the more difficult it becomes to penetrate the consciousness of the kids. While my observations above were general in nature, they correlate with the realm of exploration, too: most kids are unaware, they have difficulty (or a resistance to) comprehending minimally complex concepts, and they don’t seem care about much at all.

Standard bearer or pariah?

If today we were to consider all exploration, particularly that which involves traveling to and investigating new territorie, as a singular collective of disparate endeavors, we might justifiably put forward spaceflight as holding pride of place for two reasons:

  1. It is easily the most expensive. Government attempts to lower the cost of space flight notwithstanding—one shuttle launch reportedly cost more than all money ever spent on dinosaur science{1}—even the cheapest path into space costs tens of millions of dollars;
  2. It remains the ultimate limitless frontier. While some fields still have centuries of unexplored “territory” remaining, space literally stretches to the edge of the universe and to the end (and beginning) of time.

Yet if exploration’s most important role is to help our youth embrace deeper thinking and grander perspectives, our standard bearer is doing an embarrassingly lousy job. As I noted above, the kids are barely aware that any space exploration is happening at all! I see two likely causes of this absence of space consciousness: one is the reporting, and the other is reality.

V. Penetrating the bubble

Back in 2007 I described the primary causes of (“Space for improvement (part 1)”, The Space Review, February 5, 2007) and listed some possible solutions to (“Space for improvement (part 2)”, February 12, 2007) spaceflight’s public relations problem. While I focused primarily on NASA Public Affairs and their TV mission coverage, these were only specific examples. I contend that the entire space industry, with only a few bright exceptions, has failed miserably in this regard. My proof lies in my observations: the kids are unaware and they do not care.

Given this persistent situation, my previous core recommendations merit repeating:

  1. Members of the space flight community—public, private, everybody—must learn how to tell stories that engage an audience by emotionally connecting the folks on the inside with those on the outside.
  2. The informational firewalls must come down. Specifically:
    1. Stop presuming that the public can’t understand the real subject matter. Watered-down material isn’t easier to swallow, it’s just bland. With jargon efficiently translated and technical concepts smartly explained, anyone can get caught up in the actual challenges the “inside” folks are facing.
    2. The inside folks must become real people instead of remaining invisible engineers and anonymous console-sitters. Unless audience members can relate on a human-to-human basis, they won’t get hooked.
    3. Mistakes, worries, and unanticipated problems should neither be minimized nor over-blown. Obstacles to success create suspense; suspense grabs and holds an audience.
    4. NASA and the private companies must seriously rethink proprietary security as it relates to their public interface. Competitive technical secrets must stay secret, but unless the audience can be brought deeper inside the operations and closer to the challenges getting tackled, they will forever remain outside the fence.

Even if everyone were to adopt the above recommendations a formidable hurdle would remain: exposure. The kids may be connected online nearly 24/7, but that doesn’t mean they actually see stories about spaceflight, or exploration of any sort. My essay listed numerous media avenues, but I must highlight again here the one I feel holds the greatest potential (and which someone is finally beginning to exploit): Jon Berndt’s suggested movie trailer slots, which was used in the latest Star Trek film. Once created for the big screen, perhaps such mini-documentaries could become Internet pre-start ads; in-your-face need not always be annoying.

And NASA shouldn’t be alone here. Space Exploration Technologies’s latest Grasshopper footage is impressive enough on a 20-inch display; imagine it yards across up on a movie theater screen with full surround sound! As part of a mini-documentary placing such engineering tests in full context (see below), forget space consciousness! We’re talking genuine space thrill!

And it’s not just the real stuff

Then there is popular entertainment. While I remain concerned that fictional space flight (in film and gaming) might actually dilute interest in the real thing, I still see strong potential in popular fiction for raising “real space” consciousness.

Case in point: I am hoping the three feature films this year (See “Futures imperfect”, The Space Review, May 20, 2013) exploit elements of real space flight (e.g., zero-g, orbital dynamics, environmental systems, etc.) to honestly enhance their storylines. (The recent ISS space suit water leak reminds us of the ubiquity of potential dramatic, and completely plausible, story items.) And TV, too: perhaps if the SyFy Channel were to let go of their campy sharks/snakes/mollusks/weather fixation they might try dabbling in realistic space plots. Of course, some stories set in space, like Avatar, have nothing really to do with spaceflight; more’s the pity.

Do not believe, however, that fiction by itself could ever provide the same deep inspiration that real exploration does. Even while many of us grew up enjoying the futurescapes of Star Trek, 2001, and other iconic sci-fi entertainment, we did so fully aware that the real activities taking place (even the much-maligned shuttle) were what gave such fictional projections any credence.

It’s not that some very good things aren’t taking place today. What we lack is a comprehensive context that defines an easily discernible path toward a clear set of worthwhile objectives.

Many possible media avenues exist. But let us not underestimate the challenge: we must penetrate each teenager’s bubble before we can expand his or her exploration consciousness. As a teacher I have my part to play, but on behalf of all academia: we’ll accept all the help we can get. Please, all of you, think assiduously about this: if we can grab their attention and hold them even briefly with the genuine drama and wonder we here appreciate—the engaging people-oriented stories inherent in space exploration and development—the kids will dig deeper on their own and we’ll have won half the battle.

VI. Clarity of purpose

It would also help if the world of spaceflight (public and private) were to put its own house in order. Audiences have difficulty following any story unsure of its own plot. As I hinted in my opening paragraph, the current “space program” is hardly a model of unified purpose and clear vision. Compared to Apollo’s happy-nuclear-family road trip to Disneyland, today’s space efforts are a dysfunctional family’s cacophonous squabbling at the reading of a contested will.

It’s not that some very good things aren’t taking place today. What we lack is a comprehensive context that defines an easily discernible path toward a clear set of worthwhile objectives. Such a unitary premise could better justify all supporting effort and, perhaps most importantly, would generate criteria by which to cleanly assess the value of the various pieces being developed or proposed.

Instead we have a loose confederation of competing possibilities, some reasonable, some dubious, that are swarming about a few (some very expensive) programs still searching for underlying purpose. Such a hazy mess makes trying to inform the kids (and adults!) about what we’re doing in space exceedingly difficult. It’s easy enough to highlight this particular achievement or that specific possibility, but I have been waving my hands a lot trying to offer my students a coherent picture of current space exploration, with little success.

This is partly why I favor the particular route that I do (okay, so I will defend one pathway), the use of the Moon as a stepping stone toward bringing the entire solar system inside our scientific and economic domain. It is not because I don’t want us to go to asteroids, reach the moons of Mars, build power satellites or fuel depots, send more robotic probes, or land humans on Mars. Nor am I opposed to commercial operations or government programs, if well-conceived and smartly executed. Quite the contrary: I want it all!

It just makes the most sense to me, and some others, that the best way to get it all—eventually—is by using the “Gemini” template: begin mastering the necessary skills and developing the core technologies for human solar system exploration and in-situ resource exploitation inside the Earth-Moon neighborhood, akin to how we first mastered in low Earth orbit the key capabilities needed to reach the Moon. This is why I find NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission concept a tad bizarre: go bring back a new moon for practice and study when we already have a Moon (where we have some experience, even!) available. Huh?

This indeed was the long-term roadmap of the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Its catch-phrase “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” was an elegant and easily understood encapsulation of the plan’s philosophy. But of course the VSE didn’t unfold as hoped (in part) because a certain rocket scientist seemingly lost sight of this core premise (See “Somewhat as a clamor in the wilderness”, The Space Review, February 11, 2008).

I am not advocating that all space activities be placed under the thumb of one government or a single international program. A great benefit of the free market and the international community is that free agents can independently achieve separate goals more effectively. But given how expensive spaceflight remains and that the pointy end of the entire endeavor—exploration of a given day’s furthest accessible frontier—will likely always require some government investment, it makes sense to coordinate the many elements wherever it helps to do so to maximize synergy. This implies a purposely designed sequential game plan.

Explore or suffer the consequences

We desperately need such a unifying vision for space exploration, preferably one well designed to achieve it all. Without such a sequenced and easily articulated plan we might continue to go everywhere and nowhere simultaneously for decades.

Whether or not this roadmap goes through the Moon is something to seriously debate (“been there, done that” doesn’t qualify), but it must include an ever-expanding envelope of human travel to new destinations. Otherwise much of its essential inspirational power would be lost. I cherish every bit of data returned by robotic probes and understand their economy, but if humans do not follow, then all of that beamed-back information might easily shrink to just one more trickle of ones and zeros lost inside the kids’ high-bandwidth data streams. We need living, breathing people out there for the sake of the growing, maturing people back here.

Furthermore, we must penetrate their isolation bubbles to raise their space consciousness or all such exploration efforts would fall short of their vital inspirational promise. Parents, teachers, and all of us must somehow get the kids to lift their heads up from the limiting bounds of their screens to look around and contemplate the bigger, broader universe. We must turn them—especially the kids—back on to the greatest adventure of our time. Only then will genuine exploration of the limitless, final frontier help again to fire their maturing intellects and so enable them to recognize and embrace the profoundest of human possibilities: their own potential.


{1} Sampson, Scott, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life, University of California Press, 2011. The author cites this comparison anecdotally but doesn’t give a reference. Even if it were an exaggeration it does capture the orders-of-magnitude difference in spent dollars between space flight and other forms of exploration: tens and hundreds of millions versus tens and hundreds of thousands.