Space travel

Intro

In future, space research should be the concern of all humanity. Setting aside other arguments, we need an ambitious common cause to avoid the descent into minus-sum play. Without an outlet for creative energies, it is difficult to visualize any kind of long-term stability, except dismal self-repetition. Our mission is to bring forth life as we know it out in the universe. Perhaps our descendants will some time encounter kindred spirits out there.

Are we alone

Despite the commercialization of space, new exploits will be dependent on the goodwill of the taxpayer. The basic motivation is the thirst for knowledge, a need for explanation and clarification, a will to test the limits of the possible and impossible. In other words, a passionate quest which does not take ‘no’ for an answer. Space has to be investigated simply because it is there – inaccessible, enigmatic, promising.

Barrow and Tipler have presented a detailed case for the feasibility of extensive space colonization. (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, 1986). The centerpiece of their strategy is the von Neumann probe, an intelligent self-repairing and self-reproducing universal constructor which would carry either replicas of the human genome or sufficient information to rebuild it from scratch. The probes would utilize local sources of energy and raw material, and would in due course introduce human beings wherever possible. Assuming only currently known, non-nuclear modes of propulsion, the colonization of our galaxy would require about 300 million years.

Are we alone in our galaxy or perhaps in the whole universe? What forms can life assume in other solar systems? These questions may never be answered but still insist on an answer. An encounter with an alien civilization would be the most exciting thing imaginable. The search is on for signals from distant worlds, even if the probability of achieving contact is diminishingly small.

Conventional wisdom says that we cannot be unique; already our Milky Way should in all probability teem with life. So far, no extraterrestrials have been observed (pace all UFO enthusiasts) and the depressing conclusion is that long-distance communication is impossible in this universe of ours. That may be so, but there is another explanation. Even if primitive life forms would be common, civilizations may still be a rarity.

On earth it took almost four billion years to create the first multicellular organisms. Elsewhere the local sun could well be finished before intelligent beings could develop. Neither the evolution of life nor of human high culture is a natural necessity but the outcome of a succession of fortunate circumstances. Moreover, advanced civilizations seem to be constitutionally unstable; they tend to self-destruct by decay or stagnation. A sustained plus-sum game is more difficult than it appears – it could be extremely rare.

The ultimate challenge

Space research is the ultimate scientific and technological challenge. It can be perceived as a focus for our collective creativity, for human ingenuity, perseverance and faith in the future. Due to its extreme long term nature, space research is vulnerable to budget cuts. Propitiously, the United States and the European Union have not yielded to this temptation. Russia, too, is still in the race. Japan nurtures an expanding space program while China and India are preparing to join the contest. A common ambition to proceed is prevalent.

In space, at least some of the swords have been transformed into plowshares. Sophisticated technology serves peaceful purposes and may be sorely needed in defense against threats from outer space. In future, space research should be the concern of all humanity. Setting aside other arguments, we need an ambitious common cause to avoid the descent into minus-sum play. Lacking an outlet for creative energies, it is difficult to visualize any kind of long-term stability, except dismal self-repetition. Our mission is to bring forth life as we know it out in the universe. Perhaps our descendants will some time encounter kindred spirits out there.