The Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Where next for NASA?

“Exploration is in our nature,” said Carl Sagan. “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”

His words were very much on my mind when I attended the 10th Annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium last Monday, to watch as Neil deGrasse Tyson and a handful of other science luminaries considered the question “Moon, Mars and Beyond: Where Next for the Manned Space Program?” This was, I thought, an invigorating exchange of ideas on where our wandering species should venture now — and it’s a conversation that I’m convinced needs to happen more widely.

A podcast of the entire event can be downloaded here; news articles are here, here, and here. The Mars Society promises to put up a video of the debate on its YouTube channel, and I’ll link to it when they do.

Some personal thoughts and highlights:

Packed house for the Asimov Debate. Credit: R. Mickens/AMNH

I.

I was surprised, and gratified, to see how well-attended the event was: 900 people filling every seat in the LeFrak Theater (what a great name that seems now, post-Battlestar Galactica!) — plus an overflow crowd watching the simulcast in a separate auditorium. There were already a few hundred people ahead of me in line when I arrived a half-hour before the debate; by the time the theater doors opened, the line was snaking through several of the museum’s halls. And they weren’t all graying members of the space race generation, although there were many; there were also plenty of young adults, students, even a couple with a baby in a stroller.

I think the mainstream media, distracted as it is by the issues and frivolities of the day, misses this important point: people are hungry for this type of conversation, and enthusiastic about the prospect of space exploration. We’re restless. As Tyson pointed out, the shuttle program and the International Space Station amount to “boldly going where hundreds have gone before,” and we want to see what else is out there.

II.

On a related note: Tyson at one point talked about the public’s perception of what percentage of their taxes was used to fund NASA; people would generally guess perhaps a nickel or a dime per tax dollar. Astonishingly the correct answer is closer to half a penny per dollar; and Tyson (jokingly?) proposed that we should campaign to get the government to actually spend how much the public thinks it’s spending on the space program! Again, among the public there seems to be an unspoken support for space exploration that isn’t generally acknowledged in the media nor reflected in the government’s priorities.

III.

I didn’t realize, until Tyson introduced him, that I’d seen Steven Squyres before: in the IMAX documentary Roving Mars, in his capacity as the director of the program that sent the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to that planet. Our daughter has been in love with the rovers ever since she saw the film, and they’ve been recurring characters in the bedtime stories we make up for her.

Squyres seems to have been the only member of the panel to have led an actual space exploration mission, and I wish he’d been given more time to speak about his experiences and views. As of the time of the debate, he said, the rovers were on day 2203 of their 90-day mission to Mars; a truly impressive achievement. (But for a more poignant take on that topic, see this.)

It was worth noting that Squyres — a self-admitted “robot guy” — fully supported manned missions to other worlds, for the reason that human explorers can simply discover, process, and analyze so much more; what took the rovers years to accomplish would have taken humans a week.

Panel of experts at the Asimov Debate (L to R): Lester Lyles, Kenneth Ford, Robert Zubrin, Paul Spudis, Steven Squyres, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Credit: R. Mickens/AMNH

IV.

It was interesting to see people — both on the panel and in the audience during the Q&A — expressing very different rationales for establishing footholds on other worlds. Some voiced internationalist perspectives, and talked of space exploration as a great joint venture by all nations; but a couple of audience members seemed fixated on the “threat” of China as a rising technological power, and talked of the need for US defense technology in space, even a military base on the moon.

Interestingly, it was retired general Lester Lyles, the spokesman for the military viewpoint on the panel, who seemed to stress the spirit of international cooperation the most. Although he did talk about space as “the ultimate high ground” and about how Operation Desert Storm awakened the military’s appreciation for space tech, he took great pains to stress that the military does not now view other nations as antagonists in the quest for space, but rather as indispensable partners. How much of this is the truth about the military’s attitude, and how much is only prudent diplomacy, I can only speculate. Perhaps prudence is sufficient.

V.

The person who unexpectedly made the biggest impression on me, and I think on the audience as a whole, was Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society. Throughout the debate Zubrin made a determined and impassioned argument for a manned mission to Mars that would have made Carl Sagan proud. The Moon and Mars, he said, are analogous to what Greenland and North America were to the early European explorers; as North America was a more distant but far more rewarding destination, so should we set our sights on Mars. Mars provides the opportunity for “truly grand science” that can help answer some of our fundamental existential questions; the discovery of life somewhere on the planet (either existing or extinct) would be a profound confirmation that life is not unique to our own world, and is perhaps common in the universe.

For more down-to-earth reasons, a mission to Mars would provide an economic benefit as well, perhaps the most essential long-term kind: the development of intellectual capital. Zubrin pointed out that the number of science graduates in the US doubled during the Apollo years, and that Mars can serve as the same kind of inspiration to kids today. We’re going to Mars, the message might go, so learn your science and be part of the adventure.

For all these reasons, both practical and idealistic, establishing a foothold on Mars is well worth the expense and the risk to human life. Zubrin consistently got the most enthusiastic applause during the course of the debate.

VI.

It was wonderful to have Buzz Aldrin call in, even if he did go on and on; the audience was willing enough to give the second man on the Moon ample time to talk. But I don’t think everyone in the audience was on board with his strikingly US-centric vision: the overall purpose of the space flight program, he said, should be to establish US dominance in space. Perhaps that’s how NASA started, during the tense years of the Cold War, and perhaps that’s the mindset the Apollo astronauts had; but I’d venture to say that most people in the audience view space exploration as a universal effort, and would cheer the accomplishments of anyone from any nation as a significant step forward for the human species as a whole. When you see the Earth as a pale blue dot, as Sagan showed us, the importance of borders and nationalities fades away. (It should, anyway, if we are to survive in the long run.)

VII.

Interesting, too, to see the back-and-forth on which approach to exploration works best: set a short-term goal, or allow for open-ended R&D? Zubrin made a compelling argument for choosing a destination and setting a timeline. He pointed to the success of the Apollo program, which set its sights on the Moon, declared a self-imposed deadline, and brought all of its resources to bear on achieving that goal. Now, in contrast, he said that NASA is operating in a “technology-driven” — which is to say “constituency-driven” — mode: directionless, with no concrete goal nor short-term timeline to focus resources or political will.

Zubrin compared the two approaches to two newlywed couples intending to build a new house for themselves. Couple #1 picks a house design, hires an architect, and devotes all their efforts and purchases toward that particular plan; Couple #2 cruises garage sales for furniture and house parts, fills their backyard with mismatched junk, then hires an architect and directs him to design a house that accommodates every item they’ve bought. It was a hilarious metaphor; General Lyles acknowledged Zubrin’s point, but emphasized his confidence in NASA to do the right thing and stressed that their approach, contrary to public perception, is not willy-nilly. I hope he’s right.

VIII.

Another surprise appearance: Miles O’Brien, former science correspondent for CNN, was the last audience questioner. He got into a heated exchange with Zubrin about the wisdom of NASA’s current approach, but made an interesting point: that much of the debate to this point has been at least partly driven by nostalgia for the days of Apollo, and that those days aren’t coming back. Perhaps, O’Brien argued, people are inspired today not by the prospect of sending a handful of humans to Mars but by the democratization of space — by the idea that opening up low Earth orbit to the private sector would eventually allow everyone to go up. He cited the extraordinary attention given to the X Prize as evidence, perhaps, of a shift in public interest, and a need to reexamine the goals of exploration.

Well, yes, perhaps; but I would say that the idea of the democratization of space is incomplete if, in the end, we still aren’t going anywhere. Enabling public access to low Earth orbit doesn’t resolve the issue of wanderlust; after millions are able to orbit the globe, how long before we start asking — again, as we always have — “Where do we go from here?”

IX.

One audience member asked Tyson a question in honor of Isaac Asimov: Will human beings ever orbit another star? Not surprisingly, Tyson’s answer was a realistic “No.” To accomplish that, he said, we need something fundamentally different from existing technology; “Don’t hold your breath.” Fair enough, but what a blow to the wild dreams that Asimov and other SF writers inspired!

Perhaps, as H.G. Wells said of his artilleryman, there is indeed a great gulf between our dreams and our powers. But I hope our powers enable us to do much, nevertheless.

Photograph of a Martian sunset, taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, May 19, 2005

X.

Returning to the Moon, and traveling to Mars and the asteroids and beyond, are the baby steps on a great journey that I think is essential for humanity to take. As caught up as we are in the issues of the day, I think some portion of our attention must always be on the very long view: on whether, and why, and with what first steps, we should venture from the shores of Earth into the deeps of the cosmic ocean — in search of knowledge, adventure, other life, and ultimately, perhaps, other worlds to call home.

Here is Sagan, from Pale Blue Dot:

“In modern Western society,” writes the scholar Charles Lindholm,

the erosion of tradition and the collapse of accepted religious belief leaves us without a telos [an end to which we strive], a sanctified notion of humanity’s potential. Bereft of a sacred project, we have only a demystified image of a frail and fallible humanity no longer capable of becoming god-like.

I believe it is healthy — indeed, essential — to keep our frailty and fallibility firmly in mind. I worry about people who aspire to be “god-like.” But as for a long-term goal and a sacred project, there is one before us. On it the very survival of our species depends. If we have been locked and bolted into a prison of the self, here is an escape hatch — something worthy, something vastly larger than ourselves, a crucial act on behalf of humanity. Peopling other worlds unifies nations and ethnic groups, binds the generations, and requires us both to be smart and wise. It liberates our nature and, in part, returns us to our beginnings. Even now, this new telos is within our grasp.

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