Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Biological Imperative

Every few months, the debate over humans in space seems to flare up again. The motivations for human spaceflight are usually touched on briefly while reflecting on the loss of the astronauts of the Apollo I, Challenger, and Columbia spacecraft. Sometimes the discussion is sparked by the humans vs. robots debate. Other times it shows up while attempting to justify the human spaceflight budget. Depending on the context and the participants, the discussion can be anywhere from cordial to an outright flame war.

Jeff Foust recently posted a fairly innocuous summary of reactions to the new administration's budget request (Reacting to the budget proposal - Space Politics) which has somehow managed to stir up a fair amount of discussion in its comments. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to reading through it, some of the comments had already began devolving into pointless bickering.

Of course, I felt compelled to post some of my own thoughts. I am reposting them here for my own benefit, and in case anyone would like to discuss them away from the flames of the other post.

Human space exploration is not about science, or even exploration for that matter. These things are a consequence - a side effect - of having humans in space. In fact, science and exploration are a consequence of humans being just about anywhere, including the bottom of the ocean or in caves dozens of kilometers below the surface. Humans will make observations (either directly or through remote probes), form hypotheses, test them, and then find a way to exploit the results somehow. That's what humans do.

The question on everyone's mind is "Why?" Why do we go to all of these extreme places (in person and with probes)? The answer is quite simple: niche exploitation and expansion. It's a biological imperative. We do what biological organisms have always done: expand to fill an available niche, exploit resources where possible, and then search for new niches to fill. In every biological population, there are individuals or groups which make it their purpose to accomplish each of these tasks. Humans are particularly adept at this and are doing so at an unprecedented rate.

What makes humans so special is that they are the first species capable of expanding the biosphere beyond the surface of the Earth. Humans alone are capable of taking this simple biological imperative out into the universe; exploiting the resources found there, remaking the environment to sustain themselves, and always pressing forward. It is for this purpose that the robotic probes are made and sent out in advance; and that robotic machines are being created to assist humans in hostile environments. It is also for this reason that we cannot send robotic probes alone.

In a way these thoughts are complementary to those I have posted previously (Why Space? and Not Just Science). I find that my thoughts have evolved somewhat since then. I have been trying to come to a better understanding of what it is that space advocates are trying to articulate when they give the 'basic human need to explore' argument. Although most space advocates feel this in their bones, they usually fail to give an adequate explanation of this feeling to those who do not necessarily share their passion for space. I'm not saying that my comments above will go much further at bringing this point home to the average Joe. However, I do feel that if we can get past our own personal motivations and cast human spaceflight in a broader context, we may eventually be able to convince others that it is well worth the expense.

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