For almost half a century, it’s seemed like human destiny to go into Space. When we were kids, everyone wanted to be an astronaut when they grew up. The loss of the Columbia space shuttle hasn’t extinguished that dream, but it firmly reminds us that leaving the Earth behind is a very difficult thing to do. If things were just a little bit different – if our species were as big as elephants, or aquatic, or if the Earth’s gravity were much stronger, it may have been impossible. As it is, raising a human being into low Earth orbit, to say nothing of going further, is a hugely expensive proposition. And once up there, the lack of gravity leads to muscle wasting and other physiological problems. Food and air also need to be brought up from the planet below.
Perhaps in the future the problems will be overcome. Science fiction writers envisage space elevators riding smoothly and cheaply to staging posts in geostationary orbit. Perhaps raw materials can be mined from the moon or the asteroids rather than dragged out of Earth’s gravity well. Rotating, wheel-shaped space stations may be able to simulate gravity. We may be able to establish artificial life-supporting ecosystems on these stations. But ultimately, it has to be asked why humans need to be in Space at all. It would be far easier to establish colonies under the sea, but this has not been done, and there are no serious plans to do so. We don’t need the living space. There are no natural resources that are worth the expense of going to fetch them, nothing on which to base an economy, no realistic prospect of trade with Mother Earth.
Space is like Antarctica. Hostile, no place for humans to live on an extended basis, but oh, so fascinating. We go into Space for the same reason we go to Antarctica, to learn more about the world around us, and about ourselves. And that, ultimately, is reason enough.
Arthur C Clarke dreamed of manned communications centres high above the Earth. Though the principle of telecommunications satellites in geostationary orbit has become a reality, the giant stations of Clarke’s imagination have not, and never will. Clarke, or anyone else in the 1940s, could not have realised how small, reliable and efficient electronic componentry would become. You don’t need people on hand to replace burned-out valves.
More than anything else, this electronics revolution is the reason the manned space programme is struggling. There’s no commercial reason for live humans to be there, and even the scientific rationale is looking shaky. The solar system is already being explored, courtesy of Voyager, Pathfinder and company, and far more efficiently than humans could hope to do; what’s more their advantage will only become more pronounced. And hardly anyone grieves overmuch when a robot crashes and burns in the frozen wastes of Mars.
It’s funny how things work out. Back in the 60s everyone assumed that by now we’d have been to Mars and established permanent bases on the Moon. I guess it just goes to show there’s no such thing as destiny.