There was this awesome show that aired in late 2009 called Defying Gravity. In the show's opening scene the main character, Maddux Donner, reflects on his father's unpleasant opinion of space travel and of his son's involvement in it. His father sneeringly says "Space travel is a fool's game. Man is sixty percent water. They eat, sleep, defecate, can't follow directions, and explode like piñatas when exposed to the vacuum of space." And while all of this may be true (though exposure to vacuum is not well documented, and theories run rampant), it suggests nothing of all the wonders and glories that are also involved. There is so much that mankind can bring into space, and not all of it is tangible or immediately obvious to the general public judging the practicality from their homes on the surface of Earth.
As far as we know, there is absolutely no life out there in space. By "space" I mean anything beyond the atmosphere of our lone planet, including the atmospheres of other planets (and moons, and protoplanets, and asteroids, and everything). There is nothing, no biology, no little creatures, no algae or bacteria or plant life, certainly no consciousness. As far as we know. For us, sitting here on the pedestal of our flourishing planet, evidence is everything (as it should be). Ignorance may be bliss, as we relish in the beliefs that we are truly and utterly privileged and unique, but knowledge is power, profound in its usefulness to further understand and truly demonstrate that our beliefs are in fact true, or able to be made more true. We will never ever know, fully and unquestionably, whether we truly are alone in the universe unless another intelligence makes itself known to us or we go and stumble upon it ourselves. And if this never happens, if we are never contacted and we never discover for ourselves another life form, we still won't truly know the answer, but we will be that much more positioned to glorify ourselves for our exceptional situation--because what is the difference, when all things that are demonstrably meaningful to us are considered, if we are not alone but will never have the opportunity to discover this, or are actually, truly, utterly unique in the vast expanses of the universe? In the face of any amount of accumulating lack of evidence, the answer cannot ever possibly be known. We can only ever feel more and more secure, perhaps prideful. But never certain. We can only get an answer by going out there and having the chance to find it.
What if there is, or was, life on Mars even, so near to us, scarce as it could turn out to be, which won't ever be discovered without a trained human eye having a look around? I often imagine a (fanciful, yes) scene where the astronauts step out of their landing vehicle on the surface of Mars, perhaps after touching down in one of the many vast craters. One of them walks over to the rim of the crater and begins chipping away with some hand tool or just overturning rocks right there on the surface. I can imagine them finding, as unlikely as it may be (but who knows) the fossilized remnants of life that was once active on the planet or, somehow, against all odds, something currently living. It's wild, but it's not impossible. It could be living, or had lived, right there, thriving within the sheltering rocks and sediments of the planet.
Finding actual active life would be so much more dramatic, of course. But a single fossil find would be no less in its implications. It would mean that life came about elsewhere, at some time. There are theories which present the possibility of either Earth or Mars "seeding" the other, or being "seeded" from the same outside source long ago. In this case there wouldn't necessarily have been independent spawning of life, given the same beginnings. However, the evolution over the eons would undoubtedly have taken very different paths, on such incredibly different worlds, and whatever forms of life this other turned out to be would provide extremely valuable, unprecedented knowledge--second only to truly unique, independent life forms. We would have unimaginably vast potential for insight and discovery through just one other example of life taking hold, whether it thrived or died out.
Pure scientific insight aside, the discovery would be incredible still. While there is a certain romance in the thought that life on Earth really is all there is, and that humans are the only true intelligence, the additional knowledge would be priceless and powerful. Whether the discovery would be nothing but ancient fossils, or simple microbial life, or complex life forms like our own, the full implications are certainly beyond my imagination. It is extremely difficult to imagine how one would react to something so meaningful. But I know that it would be astounding. The foundations of so many beliefs would be shaken to their cores, hopefully constructively. The world could never be the same again.
The argument that space exploration really is justifiable, but not by humans in the flesh, is certainly powerful. There are many dangers and concerns, including but not limited to those expressed by Donner's father at the opening of the series. Even if humans don't "explode like pinatas" in the vacuum of space, they certainly don't handle it well. And so many feel like remote robotic exploration is the only justifiable means by which to scout out the galactic neighborhood. This has its benefits, of course--primarily the lack of personal danger to any potential astronaut. But machines have their own unique shortcomings, for all the usefulness they may also provide.
Robots on the surface of a world, like there have been for many years, are so limited in what they can accomplish. They are limited to their design and initial programming, and perhaps whatever updates may be applied over time. They have some amount of "thinking" they are capable of, to deal with some situations they may be faced with. But they can only deal with what their designers had the foresight to allow for, and maybe some sort of limited "situation analysis." But this is all very strict, very short-sighted in the scope of all that may occur out there so many millions of miles away. They can't reason like a person, a certain remarkable glint in the corner of their vision won't catch their own attention and lead them over. Their controllers may notice an anomaly in their surroundings when they eventually receive and filter through the data transmitted back, but not the machine itself. They certainly won't have that certain feeling in their gut pointing them to what could lead to an unexpected discovery or an avoidance of disaster. They are machines, in the end, and can only act as machines no matter how much data manipulation is programmed into their design.
Even the newest machine that is being built to better explore the surface of Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover, is not fully equipped to detect the presence of life (although it is being designed to analyze various components of the soil and atmosphere and can determine potential "habitability"). At best, as I understand things, positive results will hint at the effects of biological activity (but still a very strong indication that is has been, or even could still be, inhabited). But a human could conceivably find unquestionable evidence on the very first day of exploration. Still quite a stretch, but enormously more likely than a remotely controlled machine doing so. A human could look around, apply critical thinking, rationalize a good spot to start chipping away, and happen upon one of the greatest discoveries of all time--all without having to wait on instructions to travel the space between the two worlds, and without the bickering of engineers and operators debating on the specific actions to employ at each step of the mission. The speed of light becomes quite a burden when handling communications between people/machines many millions of miles separated.
None of this is to say that the machines are not a valuable tool in space exploration. Some jobs really are much better suited for unmanned spacecraft. Flyby photography, atmosphere analysis and surface mapping of worlds, among many others, are all probably much better suited for machines. This sort of technical thing can be very accurately, and much more cheaply, achieved without human presence and the dangers involved. I think both will always be crucial. But I think we need to think long and hard about the benefits, and the consequences, of a stronger human presence in space. There is certainly plenty of potential for humans in space that machines simply cannot provide. I think the most important of these is our consciousness, our ability to think, reason and appreciate, and to adapt spontaneously to unforeseen circumstances. Adaptation is an extremely useful thing, especially in such dangerous and inexperienced terrain.
I often hear opposition to the danger to human lives in manned spaceflight. Of course there have been various tragedies over the years, witnessed by countless people. And these people who were lost had family and friends, and of course the rest of their potential lives ahead of them. I will never mean to downplay the loss that occurred at each of these disasters. But they knew the risks they were involved with. They must have come to terms with the possibility of disaster. They must have felt that the possibilities were more worthwhile. There must be a great number of people who will always be willing to take the risk. I myself am one… I can only imagine how many others would be even more devoted if given the chance. There are risks involved in everything--some much greater than others, of course, and some much more rewarding. The rewards often outrank the risks, or else there would be no challengers so willing to give their devotions to any task.
When humanity was first designing the ships that they would sail across the seas and oceans, were they not faced with a similar predicament? From the smallest, simplest raft to the grandest cruiser there has been progress in design, construction, efficiency, and our understanding of how to master the art of them. I am sure it was not an easy road through the years. How expensive must it have been for the first large-scale ships to be designed, built, populated and set to sea? How much risk was put on each life while the skills involved were still being refined? How many ships, whether full of people or not, were met with disaster? How many people were making similar arguments of the dangers of sea travel and the uselessness of what would be found on the other side of the ocean (if anything)?
Of course caution is always a very good idea. Careful consideration should always be applied to unfamiliar terrain. But what would have happened if we had all but dropped the exploration of the oceans in the face of such concerns? Perhaps most of the planet would have still become populated, eventually, but certainly much more slowly and with much more difficulty. Wouldn't maps have been much less accurate? Our understanding of geology much more hindered and incomplete? And each civilization left largely on their own for much longer periods of time? Maybe some would even argue that this would have been better. I wholeheartedly disagree.
Just as most people would probably agree that a world without ocean travel, or air travel, is almost incomprehensible in sustaining the resources and communication and trading habits of today, so a generation of the future might find it unimaginable that space travel was once not a commonplace, fruitful endeavor. As our planet's resources and available land dwindle, the potential that off-world settlements offer seems more and more like a useful possibility. Confined here on this lone planet of all the vast reaches of space, mankind has only the limited resources and surface area provided with which to sustain itself. It might only take a single catastrophe, brought upon ourselves or delivered by the inexorable movements of the mighty celestial bodies, to wipe us and all we've ever known completely out of existence.
We bring opportunity into space. We bring hope into space. We bring consciousness into space. We bring awe, reverence, and understanding to things that would otherwise never have a set of probing eyes fall on them. Virtually every rock on every world in the solar system is being illuminated by the sun every single (relative) day, but unless we bring ourselves to them it's almost as if they don't exist. They certainly won't ever be of any significance otherwise. They just sit there, undisturbed, unobserved. The microbes that could be squirming around somewhere out there, providing us with potentially one of the most significant discoveries imaginable, won't ever make their presence known to us. We must go out there and find them ourselves. And even if we find nothing biological--not a single trace of life that ever lived outside Earth, in decades or centuries of meticulous exploration--then we will be that much more reaffirmed in the significance of our own existences. Life will be demonstrably that much more precious! It's a win-win, for us. We either find something or we don't, but either way we learn. We understand our place in the universe more deeply. We gain respect for life either because it's resilient and adaptable enough to have come about elsewhere, or because our position is so apparently unique that we have this priceless opportunity to relish for ourselves.
As Maddux Donner so beautifully says at the end of Defying Gravity's first episode, after much consideration of his father's harsh words:
"My old man is right, about every single item except the initial premise. Man(kind) belongs in space, because of exactly what he brings into the void."