Why Human Exploration

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Why Human Exploration?

Our early ancestors migrated across plains and jumped from continent to continent. Our more recent relatives set forth on great voyages of exploration, by ship and by caravan. For the past hundred years, we have been able to don deep-sea diving gear and space suits to explore places that once were inaccessible. We have already taken our first tentative steps off our home planet, and are on the verge of becoming a spacefaring species.

Human Flexibility and Creativity

Space exploration involves a finely crafted partnership between robots and people. Robots are useful in well-defined, repetitive, and predictable situations. Robots have nearly unlimited stamina and never become bored, fearful, or angry. They are not, however, flexible and creative. People can organize information in many different ways, deal with ambiguity, take advantage of unexpected opportunities, use their intuition, and apply common sense. In light of the work that needs to be done in space, there will always be a need for human skills.

Spaceflight as a Psychological Boost

As a challenging and unique environment, space promises visitors a psychological boost. Training for and working in space allows astronauts and cosmonauts to develop their abilities, gain a sense of accomplishment, and enhance their sense of mastery over the environment. Many spacefarers, who tend to be scientists, report nearly mystical experiences as they conduct extravehicular activities or walk on the surface of the Moon. They experience feelings of wonder and awe, a new appreciation of humanity, and a sense of communion with the universe. It is doubtful that the unique and memorable experience of "being there" can be duplicated through even the most convincing form of virtual reality.

One picture of Earth taken during the Apollo Moon program shows a fragile-looking balla pale blue dotpartially shrouded by clouds.* Imagine what it would be like to view Earth from a distanceif not as a professional astronaut, then perhaps as a tourist in Earth orbit or on a round trip to the Moon. The Moon is a place of sharp contrasts with a stark landscape and a remarkably nearby horizon. Then there is Mars with its massive mountains, rough terrain, and powerful dust storms. It could be the perfect destination for a person who likes rugged scenery or wants to get away from it all. Over time scientists and engineers may develop the technology to transform desolate planets into attractive and friendly homes.

Dennis Tito, the first paying tourist in space, visited the International Space Station in 2001, and was pleased with his destination. Surveys reveal that many people would like to follow in his footsteps. Whereas few respondents could afford the multi-million-dollar ticket, some people are willing to pay the equivalent of four years' salary for that experience. Several companies in the United States, Europe, and Russia are working to drive the price down, and the Russians are developing a new rocket that could give tourists a taste of space for only $100,000.

A Fresh Start on the High Frontier

In The Case for Mars (1997) Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagner argue that space offers people a fresh start. Because the pioneers will be few in number, each person will be valued and judged on the basis of his or her merit rather than gender or ethnic background. To grapple successfully with the challenges of life in space, the people who go there will have to be educated and creative and develop new technologies. The abundance of resources in space will give pioneers an opportunity to amass great fortunes. Those authors draw a compelling comparison between the opening of the frontier of the American West and the opening of the frontier in space. Unlike the West, space is so vast that the frontier will never close.

According to German rocket scientist Krafft A. Ehricke, the greatest limits are those that people place upon themselves. Instead of "thinking small" and limiting the use of Earth's resources, it is better to "think big," embrace technology, and exploit the universe's resources to the fullest. The choice is between stagnation and decay or unlimited growth. If people do not expand into space, human society will simply run down.

Assuring Humanity's Long-Term Survival

Ultimately, space may provide answers to threats to planet Earth, including overpopulation, depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, and irreversible damage to the environment. Space has vast areas of real estate for developing new communities, almost unlimited sources of energy, and many other kinds of raw materials, including precious metals such as platinum. Moving into space may reduce overcrowding, replenish resources, and separate clashing communities, eliminating many of the bases for war.

If one has looked through a telescope or binoculars at the face of the Moon, one would see that over the millennia asteroids and meteors have left the Moon's surface heavily cratered. Flying debris has hit Earth too. To some extent, Earth's atmosphere provides some protection against smaller incoming objects, and natural geological processes on Earth softenand over timeeliminate the signs of ancient impacts. At some point a huge comet or asteroid could crash through Earth's atmosphere. The collision itself would be bad enough, but the resulting storm of dust and debris could turn Earth into a hopelessly dark and cold place. The establishment of humans in space could help the human species survive such a cataclysmic disaster. If people disperse widely enough, it will be possible to survive the eventual death of the Sun.

People explore space for many reasons: to develop an understanding of the universe, to advance science and technology, to make money, to grow psychologically, to get a fresh start, and to have fun. But most of all, people explore space because doing so is part of human nature. In Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience (1984) Ben Finney and Eric Jones wrote that settling space should not be thought of as fantasy, imperialism, or technology gone wild. Humans are exploring animals who have covered the home planet and now look forward to settling other worlds. The Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky expressed it with the comment that Earth is our cradle and we are ready to leave the cradle. The transition to a spacefaring species is the next leap forward, from citizens of the world to citizens of the universe.

see also Earthwhy Leave? (volume 4); Humans versus Robots (volume 3); Impacts (volume 4); Lunar Bases (volume 4); Mars Bases (volume 4); Social Ethics (volume 4); Space Tourism, Evolution of (volume 4); Tourism (volume 1).

Albert A. Harrison


Finney, Ben, and Eric. M. Jones. Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Freeman, Marsha. The Challenges of Spaceflight. Chichester, UK: Springer-Praxis,2000.

Harrison, Albert A. Spacefaring: The Human Dimension. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Wachhorst, Wynn. The Dream of Spaceflight: Essays on the Edge of Infinity. Boston: Da-Capo Press, 2001.

Zubrin, Robert, and Richard Wagner. The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

*This image is known as "Earthrise" and can be seen in the article "EarthWhy Leave?" in Volume 4.