This may seem like heresy for an engineer, and for someone who grew up surrounded by the space program in general, but this thought needs to be raised – perhaps mankind shouldn’t go into space, at least not for a long time. Our current predicaments in energy, environment, and fiances are the result of some very human foibles, and we certainly haven’t come up with good ways to handle them.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t *explore* space (with robots); it is just that there are a series of reasons why using immense amount of resources to get into space may not be too profitable in the near (or far term), given the way humanity deals with problems.
Here are a few points to consider:
1) It is expensive, and the future benefits from human spaceflight may be negligible, given the vast amount of sums and resources that are put into it. Yes, we do get spinoffs, but that could have been gotten in other endeavors as well. The pornography and gambling industries have been a driver of many technologies (VCRs, online games. robotics); should we support them to improve all sorts of needed technologies?
2) Mankind will be exporting the same-old-same-old worldviews. Unless only perfect (or near perfect humans) are allowed to emigrate to space, the worldviews of the old world will continue. Is this a good idea?
3) As a corollary to item 2, when people get their hands on ’empowering’ technologies such as airplanes, they can do some pretty nasty things. Likewise, technologies that would allow cheap spaceflight would also allow some pretty spectacular disasters. Altering the orbits of asteroids for mining purposes could be done for immense profits, but also could be done to create amazingly destructive weapons of mass destruction. Even robotic missions to mine the asteroids could be co-opted for nefarious purposes. These issues aren’t due to the fact that we can’t make things perfectly; imperfection is inherent in all human endeavors. It is just that the magnitude of failures can have far greater impacts. Thinking about the kinetic energy in an asteroid 100 m wide moving at kilometer-per-second velocities is beyond most people. It isn’t like having a plane go into a building; an asteroid impact can put enough dust in the atmosphere comparable to that of a small or medium sized nuclear exchange.
4) The idea of colonizing Mars or other places as a ‘backup’ Earth is a pipe dream. Terraforming Mars (probably the most viable candidate for terraforming) would take centuries, if not longer, and a minimum viable population for breeding would require far too many resources. Could we put a research station on Mars? Perhaps. Could we put a self-sustaining colony there, in the next twenty years, before our energy and resource situation gets dire? My guess is not, and the burden is on the proponents of the plan to show that a self-sustaining colony could be created. The Mars Direct plan may be great for exploration, but for a self supporting colony?
5) Space is really, really, inhospitable, as this Do The Math article sums up nicely. Some of the commentary there echoes some of these arguments. The science fiction worlds we’ve been shown and accustomed to, unfortunately, have almost no bearing in reality, and so the concept of going to and settling space has been warped for a very long time. Just like the premise of interstellar flight, the problems of space travel and colonization are magnitudes different than any other endeavor.
6) A detour into space will use up precious resources, both physical and societal, that will detract from the serious problems here on Earth. Ignoring those problems, thinking that we’ll go to space to “build better worlds” won’t get us a better place to live for even at tiny fraction of our population. We do need to concentrate on fixing this world, or in the least (depending on your view of NTHE) getting a handle on the mess we’ve made here.
The Corvins might do something interesting one day, but then again, they might not.
Any more reasons why we shouldn’t go?