Feb 232013

Apparently you have to pay to apply to die on Mars.

It pains me somewhat to post this because I am a lifelong, radically enthusiastic supporter of human space exploration. But I have deep concerns about the Mars One Project.

I believe that exploration of space is an imperative for human beings. I believe that it is necessary to proliferate our species into space to protect against the possibility of our extinction. Most importantly I believe the overwhelming challenges and threats of space are the only force that could serve to unite us as a species.

Humans are at their best when threatened by nature. Our fears of one another fade against the will-less, obliterating power of a dangerous environment. We communicate, collaborate, invent, engineer, and solve. However brief our existence has been, all the greatness of humankind lay in our collective will to deny, defy, and to challenge nature at every level. We refuse to simply reproduce, die, and adapt our biology based on the whims of nature. We combat the change nature tries to force onto us. We do battle against an eternal and all-powerful enemy, arrogantly sometimes, but we do it, and we’re pretty damn good at it. And when we respect the power of our opponent, nature, we often prevail. We survive, we build, we thrive, and occasionally we do so in style.

We need the challenges of planetary colonization. We need to experience the fear of annihilation by nature, often. That kind of fear brings us closer, and makes us strong, wise, and compassionate to each other. I believe space is the only chance we have to become a race worthy of our own brilliance.

I say all this because I want you to understand the depth of my devotion to human space exploration before I make any criticisms of a space program.

Since I became aware of the Mars One project I supported it, but harbored reservations.

I finally decided I would go ahead and participate in the application process. I was pretty shocked when I found the fee page in the posted image. It solidified my concerns and influenced me to write about them.

Some may consider this an over reaction. Thirty eight dollars is a paltry sum for a chance at such an epic adventure. But I think it represents and/or reveals a massive error in this programs motivations that should be considered.

I’m not naive enough to think our motivations for space exploration will always be pure, but I think our motivations for space exploration are as important as our ability to achieve it and we must always be at least aware of them, and preferably actively control them.

If we are motivated into space by desire to dominate ourselves and Earth, we will destroy ourselves soon enough. If our motivations are for profit, then our returns will be less than we expect, because we will always fail to calculate the intangible benefits of ingenuity, inspiration and cooperation, demanded by space travel.

How did America expect to profit from the moon landing? It didn’t, but it did profit, in ways that could never have been predicted. National and human pride aside, enrollment and graduation in university science curriculums spiked across the nation. How many modern scientists and engineers will tell you that they were first inspired to their track by the space program? How many dreamed of exploration and discovering space? How many dreamed of extracting wealth and profit from it? Are we too grown up to remember what drove us to want to grow up in the first place?

In general the privatization of space travel gives me great pause. It makes space a playground for wealth. Market forces are too fickle and blind to provide the path needed to expand our presence in the universe at all, let alone in a responsible manner. Private ventures in space can disseminate the technology and make it more accessible, but it will not push the boundaries that need to be pushed. Only science and discovery have the brass-balls to push boundaries that don’t clearly have profit on the other side. And it is only the other side of those boundaries that we find new forms of riches and beauty.

The natural and human resources needed to send the mass of a human being in space, and to keep them alive, are enormous. One could do the math and find how many starving children could be fed, clothed, housed, and educated with the money it takes to keeps a human being alive in space for one day. It would probably be a depressing number. I am not an economist and I cannot envision a solution to this imbalance and I imagine it will persist. To a degree, inequality is a fact of life, I make no excuses.

But who should we sent into space then? Me; Mr. Smarty-Pants, because I’m so thinky? Probably not- I’m really not as bright as all that and a flight surgeon would ground me soon as they took my pulse and checked my vision.

Until now astronaut selection has been carried out by nations. These nations created space programs and selected the best and most capable, based on criteria defined by the best and most capable. We placed vast resources in the hands of these brave test pilots and astronauts and they understood that they rose into space as our ambassadors, and caretakers of the vast power and resources that they controlled, but they were not owners. I think we need to maintain this as a sacred tradition at all costs. Reverence for heroes can be dangerous, but it can be a fuel for inspiration if we choose the right ones.

It is not fair or wise to allow wealth to squander the resources needed to propel Earth bound mass into space and preserve is there. Those resources should be reserved for those we deem worthy by thoughtful, rigorous, criteria of physical and mental ability. Fame, popularity, and wealth should determine nothing except who gets the best seats to watch the launch.

My concerns about the Mars One program are primarily that its motivations are vague. The mission goals are simply to put people on mars and watch them be there. It’s admittedly a lot like a reality show. I cannot tell you how disturbing a precedent this could set. In some ways this could end up being some kind of survival sport. I know that’s kind of fucked up to say- but this program could have the unintended effect of trivializing the lives of astronauts, and I that cannot be allowed to happen. I’d loose my shit if I found out about a betting pool on an astronauts survival, but I’m virtually certain there would be more than a few if this becomes a mass-media phenomenon. I’d like to believe most space enthusiasts are much better than most NASCAR fans. (apologies to the 8 or 9 legitimate fans of NASCAR and NASA out there) We root for mission success. We mourn failure with real pain and real tears. No one watches a launch and secretly hopes to see a crash, no one. I know this probably naive, but please let me have this one.

If Neil and Buzz had been stranded on the moon, or if Lovell, Swigert, Haise had been lost, there may have been some cynical bastards that would be goofing on them, but I think the majority of humans on the planet would have felt pain for the loss of true heroes.

Will we feel the same about game-show astronauts if they are in peril and distress? Will we allow ourselves to become an audience in another kind of Colosseum? Can we afford to let a profession and title such as ‘Star Voyager’ become anything less than what it sounds like? (Please nobody say anything about Lisa Nowak. Astronauts are humans and humans occasionally go squirrel nuts… wiring goes bad… let’s move past it)

I’d feel better about the Mars One program if they were aggressively and publicly recruiting the scientific community to present scientific and engineering missions to the public that these astronauts will carry out.

Am I just being nostalgic here? Is this some weird form of astronaut hero worship? Am I trying to hold back progress in space for the sake of an ideal about progress in space? Maybe I am being narrow minded but I see a great deal of peril on this path. I care too deeply about the future the human species in space to allow my obsession with space flight to overwhelm my sensibilities about the future. We can only afford to allow the best of us into space as our ambassadors and caretakers of our powerful and hungry technologies. I am sure the Mars One project has the best intentions, but the road to hell was paved with those. Let us be bold, but cautious, and always be aware of our weaknesses and our demons.

Just to clarify- I have no objection to the ‘one-way’ idea. That’s the nature of colonization and I think it can paradoxically provide some psychological support for the crew since it will strongly motivate them to find ways to make Mars more Earth-like and may make it easier for them to begin to think of Mars as a home. And since that brings up terraforming I’ll also say I have no objection to that as long as we make protections for if/when life is found on another planet. I am admittedly very anthropocentric about space, but I don’t want us to turn into a race of destroyers.

In case you were wondering. yes, I always wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I sometimes experience childish disappointment when I think about the fact that I will never experience space flight for a multitude of reasons. But I know it’s childish and it’s very fleeting and I celebrate with my whole-heart for those who earn the chance to experience it themselves. And yes- I would absolutely accept a one-way trip to Mars  if I was selected, if I had total confidence in the projects goals. I clearly don’t have that confidence, so I’ve decided not to apply.

I wouldn’t leave Earth behind because I want to abandon humanity, I would because I want to help inspire humanity. I’ve called myself a misanthrope on many occasions because of my pervasive and inconsolable sense of isolation in the world. But the truth is I am in totally and absolutely in love with human kind, so much so that I am overwhelmingly disappointed in our lack of devotion to our true potential (and to my own, if I’m to be perfectly candid).

I love what I believe we could become if we believed it together. I need to know that we can and will become that. That is my perfect knowledge; that human kind has an unlimited future in eternity, because we will someday finally own ourselves and deny natures right to exterminate, as it has or will do to every other species. We will become natures equal. If that is my supreme arrogance, so be it, it’s the only absolute goal of sapient life that make any sense to me. I fully realize this sounds like the most classic hubris of man, to usurp Gods will. But in my mind God is within nature, but also far beyond it. I do not seek to challenge God in any manner. I seek to impress upon God the depth of my gratitude for creation by helping our species become the devoted stewards of it in all its vastness.

So I’ll finish up this semi-coherent rant by saying that I understand and am sorry if I raise anyone’s ire. I’m so committed to human exploration of space that if I read this I might be inclined to think negatively of the poster for the criticism of such an ambitious project. But I feel strongly, so I had to write this, I hope you understand.

Feb 052013

It warms my heart to find a human being who has surpassed my own assumptions about intelligent life in the universe and our obligations to it. It’s even nicer to find that human has already found like-minded humans and formed an organization with goals that make perfect sense to me. Looks like I have some catching up to do. A Rational for METI – Alexander L. Zaitsev.

I’ve always found it arrogant to consider that we are the only form of intelligent life in the cosmos given the evidence that:

A) Self-described “intelligent life” exists in at least one known finite space-time.

B) Space-time is infinite.

The SETI Institute has been searching for extraterrestrial signals since 1984 and I have always been highly supportive and interested in their efforts. METI seems to make the assumption that extraterrestrial life does exists and searching for it is less important that taking action to support and encourage intelligent life wherever it arises. Essentially the purpose of METI is to aide and expedite any extraterrestrial SETI that may be as isolated and overwhelmed by the vastness and hostility of the universe as we are.

In my mind METI is the ultimate act of altruism of intelligent life and civilization. The Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligence is essentially the gift of knowledge to another intelligence that “You are not alone.”

METI also argues that isolation of intelligent life can lead to its extinction and so reaching out into the universe to seek mirrors of our our existence is truly the only way to safeguard it.

This all makes absolute and perfect sense to me.

Thank you Mr. Zaitsev. I am humbled and grateful for your ideas. You’re a credit to the species (and I’m finding fewer and fewer opportunities to offer that compliment).