Michael Michaud gave the speech that follows in 1988 at the 39th International Astronautical Congress, which met in Bangalore, India in October of that year. Reading through it recently, I was struck by how timely its theme of spaceflight advocacy and human expansion into the cosmos remains today. When he wrote this, Michaud was director of the Office of Advanced Technology for the US Department of State, though he reminded his audience that the views herein were his own and not necessarily those of the US government. Michaud’s support of spaceflight and his determinedly long-term approach to our possibilities as a species has distinguished his space writing, which has been prolific and includes the essential Contact with Alien Civilizations (Copernicus, 2006). Although I had thought of updating some of the references below, it seems unnecessary. What counts are the themes. Working well before the recent surge in interstellar interest, Michael here explains why humans need to develop and strive for goals among the stars.
by Michael A.G. Michaud
The history of astronautics is not only a history of scientific and technological progress, but is also a history of persuasion. Advances in astronautics have sprung not only from steady technical advance, but also from advocacy, led by individuals and groups with deep-seated motivations. Those advocates, while often frustrated in the near term, laid the philosophical and cultural foundations that helped speed the coming of the Space Age.(1)
While many justifications have been put forward for space activities, two motivations have consistently underlain the leading edge of the space advocacy: the exploration of the universe around us, and human expansion into it. Throughout the history of astronautics, other motivations have appeared and disappeared, but these two always have been identifiable.
The Spaceflight Advocacy
The Spaceflight advocacy began with visions and ideas, initially in science fiction. Serious theoretical work began with Konstantin Tsiolkovski in the late l9th and early 20th centuries. Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard further developed the theoretical structure necessary for spaceflight. Initial rocket experiments were conducted by Goddard and others in the United States, by members of the Verein Fur Raumschiffahrt in Germany, and by members of rocket societies in the Soviet Union. The VFR in Germany, the American Interplanetary Society in the United States, and the British Interplanetary Society were advocating interplanetary travel in the early l930’s. Yet rockets of significant scale were not launched until World War II. Despite far-seeing work such as the 1946 RAND study(2), the use of the rocket to enter space had little political support in the 1940s. Yet, a decade later our machines had entered space to stay, and two decades later we landed humans on the Moon.
The original space advocacy, directed toward exploration and expansion beyond the Earth’s atmosphere into cislunar space and later into the solar system, has been spectacularly successful. By 1989, our unmanned spacecraft will have visited every planet in our solar system except Pluto. Both the Soviet Union and the United States — with its allies — are establishing a permanent human presence in low Earth orbit. The industrialization of near-Earth space has been conceptualized since the early 1970s, and the idea of human colonies in free space has been shown to be technically feasible. Advocacies have crystallized around the long-visualized Moon Base and manned mission to Mars; though neither goal has been achieved yet, it is widely expected that both will be early in the 21st century. The U.S. National Commission on Space has proposed an elaborate space transportation infrastructure linking the Earth to the Moon and Mars.(3) We are well advanced in exploring the solar system, and are close to expanding into it.
A major symbolic turning point occurred in February, 1988, with the release of a new U.S. national space policy document. That document committed the United States to a new long-term goal: the expansion of human presence and activity beyond Earth orbit into the solar system.(4) This had been a goal of the spaceflight advocacy for many years, identifiable implicitly in the writings of Tsiolkovski and explicitly at least as far back as the 1920s. In two to three generations (depending on the starting point one chooses), the spaceflight advocacy had won a policy endorsement that would have seemed inconceivable to any but its most optimistic original members: the expansion of the human species outward from Earth.
The Interstellar Advocacy
In recent years, we have seen a small but active advocacy for interstellar flight. In many ways, the interstellar advocacy of today is similar to the spaceflight advocacy of the 1920s and the 1930s. Dedicated and believing that what it advocates is not only right but inevitable, the members of that advocacy are doing the theoretical work and are laying out plans for interstellar exploration and travel. However, they lack the credibility needed to win funding and political support for their proposals.
Like the spaceflight advocacy, the interstellar advocacy first appeared in science fiction, in the 1930s and 1940s. The first significant non-fiction paper was published in 1950.(5) Scattered works appeared during the next two decades, but it was not until the mid-1970s that the interstellar advocacy achieved some public recognition. Landmarks were Forward‘s paper “A National Program for Interstellar Exploration,” published in 1975, and the British Interplanetary Society’s Project Daedalus study, published in 1978.(6) Papers on the theory and technology of interstellar flight began to appear more frequently, particularly in Astronautica Acta and the interstellar studies issues of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. The literature grew to the point that bibliographies were published.(7) Yet the number of advocates remains small, the literature still is specialized and narrowly circulated, and political and financial support is essentially non-existent.
The interstellar advocacy has reflected both the motivation to explore our larger environment and the motivation to expand human presence and activity beyond our solar system. Many of the proposed missions, particularly the early ones, are unmanned probes of nearby star systems. Others are missions of manned exploration, and still others are explicitly intended to carry human colonists to other systems, beginning the human colonization of the galaxy. None of these missions are known to be on the agenda of any space agency. However, more modest precursor missions have been proposed, such as an extrasolar probe, an Oort cloud mission, or the Thousand Astronomical Unit probe, which are extensions of existing solar system exploration technology.
In its 1988 report titled Space Science in the 21st Century, the Space Science Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences endorsed an interstellar probe. The Board envisioned a spacecraft that would escape the solar system at a velocity of about 80 kilometers a second, and enter the interstellar medium within 10 years. Such a spacecraft, if launched in the year 2000, would pass the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft new proceeding slowly toward the stars.(8) This endorsement would have been inconceivable only a decade earlier.
The interstellar advocacy is not yet taken seriously by the opinion leaders of any nation, and has yet to win support from any government. That advocacy might do well to reflect on the history of the successful spaceflight advocacy, which took decades to sell its ideas, and only won success in stages. Its progress was not smooth, but was marked by raised hopes and disappointments, starts and stops. Political events and cultural change had significant impacts on the process. The advocacy could not force events beyond what was known of the physical environment and foreseeable technology at any given time. Yet it succeeded in transferring its aspirations to many people, and in eroding conceptions of what was not possible in others. Many of its views have been adopted by the governments of major nations, and are part of popular culture.
The Larger Context
Both the spaceflight advocacy and the interstellar advocacy reflect larger paradigms of human exploration and expansion.(9) We humans, who have explored and expanded into new environments on Earth, have nearly completed our initial reconnaissance of the solar system, and are on the verge of expanding into it. The day may come when we find the solar system as limiting to our aspirations as the Earth was thirty years ago. We will look outward into an even larger environment, sprinkled with stars and planetary systems. We will explore the nearer parts of the interstellar environment through space-based astronomy and unmanned probes. Then, with our improved knowledge of that environment, our improved technological capabilities, our expanded economic base, and our changed point of view, we may choose to continue the expansion. With that decision, we will assure that humans and their cultures will free themselves of dependence on one star, as they are now freeing themselves of dependence on one planet,
This vision will not be accepted easily by the public — even the informed public. While some individuals accept the outward-looking paradigms of exploration and expansion, most do not, and must be persuaded in stages to at least tolerate such ventures. If the advocacy of interstellar exploration and colonization is to succeed, it must have a long perspective, and must maintain a certain degree of continuity. Yet it also must be ready to seize on events that will speed the coming of interstellar flight. In doing so, it will demonstrate a continuity with the spaceflight advocacy that rests on the shared aspirations of exploration and expansion.
Humanity should adopt expansion beyond Earth as a major organizing theme for its future. Evidence is strong that life tends to expand into new ecological niches when that is possible, and that such expansion is advantageous for the species. Expansion opens new opportunities for evolution and diversification, and for access to larger resources of materials and energy. Space is the macro-environment for life, the ultimate extension of our ecological range.
Exploration precedes expansion. Even more than the other forms of life we know, humans are motivated to expand by their improving perceptions of their larger environment. They deliberately explore the larger environment of space in the belief that they will benefit from improved knowledge. Astronomy and the unmanned exploration of space are allies of human expansion.
We should be conceptualizing the expansion in stages. The rate of human expansion is constrained by our perceptions, by our technologies, by our economic and human resources, and by our cultures, particularly by the predominant conceptions of what is possible. While there is a growing perception that a permanent human presence on the Moon and the human exploration of Mars are feasible, the creation of a solar system civilization still seems beyond our reach. In the early stages of developing a solar system civilization, we may reject the idea of human interstellar flight: later, with an expanded economic and technical base and greater confidence in our abilities, interstellar voyages will seem more feasible. Each stage will grow from the perceptions and capabilities created in the preceding stage.
Humanity needs to develop the technologies of expansion. Humans dreamed of voyages beyond the Earth for centuries, but could not accomplish those dreams until the technologies of the 20th century made them possible. Without telescopes, we would not have been tantalized by Mars; without rocketry, we could not have seen it in detail; without improved life support systems, we will not be able to journey there ourselves. Technology enables expansion.
Expanding into the Galaxy is an appropriate long-term goal for humanity. To rise above their intra-species disputes, humans need purposes that transcend their divisions. The expansion of humanity outward from the Earth and later outward from our solar system would be a grand shared enterprise for humanity, extending over many generations and giving us a long-term continuity of purpose.
Human expansion will require a continuity of intelligent advocacy. While the drive to expand is strong, cultural values vary with time and place, and the degree of support for expansion will vary with them. At each stage of the expansion there will be arguments against the next stage, which will be called too expensive or impractical; there also may be arguments against expansion because of our own moral imperfection. Advocates will be needed at every stage.
Astronautics already has brought great benefits to humanity, in our ability to communicate with each other, to navigate safely, to preserve the peace, to observe the Earth and the atmosphere, to study the solar system, the Galaxy and the Universe, and to perceive of ourselves as a species. Implicit in astronautics is the idea of expansion, which will bring benefits we can only dimly perceive today. Some have sensed all along that astronautics is linked to our destiny as a species.
We who are advocates of spaceflight, of interplanetary flight, and of interstellar flight are part of a great continuity. We are expressions both of powerful human drives and of an intellectual tradition. We have an endless mission before us, one marked by a succession of stages in which resistance, doubt, and delay must be overcome. Now that the first Spaceflight Revolution is behind us, we have reached a stage of maturity in which we can consciously decide and declare our intent to be human expansionists. We should not be embarrassed to be advocates of human expansion; we should be proud.
1. For studies of the spaceflight advocacy, see William S. Bainbridge, The Spaceflight Revolution, New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1976; Frank H. Winter, Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies, 1924-1940, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983; Michael A.G. Michaud, Reaching for the High Frontier: The American Pro-Space Movement, 1972-1984, New York, Praeger, 1986.
2. Report Number SM-11827, Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship, May, 1946.
3. National Commission on Space, Pioneering The Space Frontier, New York, Bantam, 1986.
4. White House Fact Sheet on Presidential Directive on National Space Policy, February 11, 1988.
5. Leslie R. Shepherd, “Interstellar Flight,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Volume 11 (1950), Pages 149-55.
6. Robert L. Forward, “A National Program for Interstellar Exploration,” in Future Space Programs 1975, a compilation of papers prepared for the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives, Volume II, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975, pages 279-326; Project Daedalus: The Final Report on the BIS Starship Study, supplement to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 1978.
7. For example, see Eugene F. Mallove, Robert L. Forward, Zbigniew Paprotny, and Jurgen Lehmann, “Interstellar Travel and Communication: A Bibliography,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Volume 33 (1980), entire issue.
8. Space Science Board, Space Science in the Twenty-First Century: Imperatives for the Decades 1995 to 2015 — Overview, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1988, page 34.
9. For further elaborations by this author on the theme of human expansion, see Michael A.G. Michaud, “Spaceflight, Colonization, and Independence,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Volume 30, Number 3 (March, 1977), 83-95 (Part One); volume 30, Number 6 (June, 1977), 203-212 (Part Two); Volume 30, Number 9 (September, 1977), 323-331 (Part Three); Michael A.G. Michaud, “The Extraterrestrial Paradigm,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Volume 4, Number 3 (September, 1979), 177-192; Michael A.G. Michaud, “Four-Dimensional Strategy,” in Jerry Grey and Christine Krop, Editors, Space Manufacturing Facilities 3: Proceedings of the Fourth Princeton /AIAA Conference, New York, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, October 31, 1979, 49-61; Michael A.G. Michaud, “Improving the Prospects for Life in the Universe,” in William A. Gale, Editor, Life in the Universe: The Ultimate Limits to Growth, Boulder, Colorado, Westview, Press, 1979, 107-117.