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Should Humans Explore The Stars?

The SpaceX Dragon module, held by the International Space Station's robotic arm.
The SpaceX Dragon module, held by the International Space Station's robotic arm.

Last week I wrote about how ultra-advanced aliens would be virtually indistinguishable from gods. Today I want to take the opposite tack and argue for our cosmic loneliness and our role as space explorers. This is inspired by the phenomenal docking of the SpaceX Dragon module with the International Space Station last week and its expected return tomorrow, when it's supposed to land in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Adam already wrote about the remarkable SpaceX mission and what it means for the space race. I want to take this topic up and see what it means for our future now that the mission is coming to an end.

There are two schools of thought on what we should be doing in space. The first is that, from a cost-management and quick results perspective, robotic, unmanned missions are the way to go. The successes are many and notable: exploration of the outer planets of the solar system by missions such as Voyager I and II and, more recently, Galileo and Cassini; or the Mars rover program, and the mounting excitement with the upcoming deployment of the rover Curiosity on August 6th 2012. There are many other examples that, indeed, we can learn a lot from sending machines into space. Apart from being cheaper, it is risk-free, at least when it comes to human life.

The second school, enthusiastically supported by Neil deGrassse Tyson and many others, argues that humans must go to space. It's our prerogative as an intelligent species, our cosmic mandate. Children love it, and love science for it.

There are many reasons for sending humans to space, some scientific and others romantic. Since SpaceX, we should also add "monetary" to the equation, as clearly there is a huge amount of money to be made by turning space exploration into a private enterprise — through mining, sponsored research, governmental contracts and tourism, to mention a few. (Up to now it was mostly through huge governmental contracts.)

Ideally, the answer should be a balance between the two: robots are clearly needed, as they will go where we can't, will perform tasks that we shouldn't and will take risks on our behalf. There are automated laboratory tests, such as those performed by the machines attached to the Mars rovers, that don't need human hands or wit to be performed successfully. However, to stop humans from exploring space, from stretching our spatial boundaries, goes against everything we have seen in our history. We are explorers by nature, we seek fortune and new homes in distant lands, often not caring much for the risks involved.

I am sure that if a space program was willing to take humans to Mars on a one-way trip, there would be a huge number of volunteers. People would be willing to die in a distant frigid world just to be there, see it for themselves, be part of history. They would do it to open the doors for others to do it, to keep our expansionist history moving outwards.

At present, there are serious obstacles to sending humans on long spaceflights. Cosmic radiation, the lack of constant gravity, psychological effects from confinement and social isolation, all make it real hard to send people off for much more than six months or so. But these are challenges that can be overcome. It's just a matter of time before we do go out there, and spread our presence around our solar neighborhood. The joining of private interest will be a major boost in this direction. Money moves to feed people's wants.

It's hard not to see us as the aliens out there, the ones that will colonize a good chunk of the galaxy within the next few million years, the blink of an eye in deep time. If we will meet "others" out there remains to be seen. Since they either haven't been here or are really good at disguising themselves, for all practical purposes we must contend with our cosmic loneliness. With present technology it would take over 100,000 years to get to the nearest star. So we better get going now.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and .

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.