Why Bother indeed?

irst, I’m back online after my wife Marie had major but routine surgery. She is still home recovering but starting to get around a bit, so I’m returning somewhat to normal myself.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. “Why Bother” is a title of article from Australia about NASA’s 50th birthday. Basically, the article points out that astronauts must be frustrated “all dressed up with no place to go” issues of manned space exploration.

I found this essay interesting because it flirts around the fundamental question driving “Outside In” – why explore space? Why should we explore space? Should we even explore space at all given our earthbound problems?

These are tough questions that space agencies, space advocates and the like have struggled to come up with answers that most of the global population finds convincing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Many of the answers proposed come from scientists who invariably use the word “science” which can tune out a large portion of the audience. Worse, the answers often get technical very quickly and starting boring even somewhat interested parties as well. I actually began conceiving “Outside In” while reading the “Why Saturn?” page on NASA’s website (which they have now made into a multimedia page from the dry text it used to be. Of course science is big part of space exploration but as I will argue later, it’s a tool of exploration, not the fundamental guiding principle. The worst science-based answers use the fear motivation as a last resort here – global warming, asteroids wiping us out etc. Fear-based motivations rarely work for long as true motivations.
  2. Some of the rest of the answers come from governmental or agency marketing types bound by endless regulation and red-tape. They are terrified of offending anyone (more about this later) and end up with empty words and platitudes about human exploration that don’t engage anyone.
  3. The private sector via the new crop of space entrepreneurs are also trying to answer these questions. While some people get giddy about the future profits and adventures of “space tourism” and “colonizing space”, others, myself included, only have to look to our present and our history to see that “tourism” and “colonialism” are amongst the most destructive undertakings in human history. I grew up in Africa, a continent of undo suffering from the wages of colonialism in the great age of exploration. The potential wars between new space colonial powers over perceived wealth in space could unravel the human species much less the endless legal wrangling over who owns what.
  4. The final answers you find are the fringe – UFOs, crop circles, alien overlords and the like. Personally, I would love it this were actually true – I’m huge Marvin the Martian fan, but alas evidence is sorely lacking, so until I’m officially abducted and probed (you can always dream), this does not really speak to most of us either.

Carl Sagan was the one of the only people who seemed to be able to reach beyond these groups and speak to the larger context of space exploration to groups well outside the science world. Especially in his last years, he was very focused on bridging the gaps. Each year since his passing, his contribution to public interest in space is more pronounced – he left a giant hole and with all due respect to the many fine public science educators out there, no one has really stepped forward to fill it. It’s one reason “Outside In” is dedicated to him (and Stanley Kubrick).

So what is the solution? It’s actually one word (although not simple) – meaning. I believe that that what people want to know is what does space exploration mean for them, for their loved ones, friends and neighbors. Why does it matter to me? Until we are able to have a dialogue on space exploration on the level of meaning, awareness, consciousness – the human species will struggle to find interest, passion and support for space exploration.

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