The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

by Paul Gilster on August 21, 2015

Interstellar distances seem to cry out for robotics and artificial intelligence. But as Nick Nielsen explains in the essay below, there is a compelling argument that our long-term goal should be human-crewed missions. We might ask whether the ‘overview effect’ that astronauts report from their experience of seeing the Earth from outside would have a counterpart on ever larger scales, including the galactic. In any case, what of ‘tacit knowledge,’ and that least understood faculty of human experience, consciousness? As always, Nielsen ranges widely in this piece, drawing on the philosophies of science and human experience to describe the value of an observing, embodied mind on the longest of all conceivable journeys. For more of Nick’s explorations, see his Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon and Grand Strategy Annex.

by J. N. Nielsen

0. A Scientific Argument for Human Exploration
1. The Human Condition in Outer Space
2. The Scientific Ellipsis of Tacit Knowledge
3. The Excommunication of the Eye
4. Human Experiences Intrinsic to Spacefaring Civilization
5. Upper and Lower Bounds of the Overview Experience
6. Observation and the Embodied Mind
7. The Knowledge Argument in Space Science
8. The Interstellar Imperative and the Human Imperative

deep field astronaut 2

0. A Scientific Argument for Human Exploration


In my essay The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight [1] I sought to construct an explicitly moral argument for human space travel. I would now like to make an explicitly scientific argument for human space travel. For those who dismiss the moral claims of human space flight, an argument from the scientific necessity of human spaceflight might possibly sound more plausible (T. E. Hulme once wrote that, “There has always been something rather unreal about ethics. In a library one’s hand glided over books on that subject instinctively.” [2]). Moreover, the claim is sometimes made that science inevitably favors robotic probes, which deliver “more bang for the buck”—a claim often coupled with a derisive attitude to human exploration as mere grandstanding or as a feel-good exercise.

While the moral goods and the scientific benefits of human spaceflight probably cannot be cleanly separated in practice, we can treat them according to the method of isolation and consider them individually and independently, as though the scientific benefits of human spaceflight might accrue regardless of the moral goods or evils that might result from human spaceflight, or that the moral goods of human spaceflight might accrue regardless of the scientific benefit or harm that might result from human spaceflight.

1. The Human Condition in Outer Space

Why go to the trouble of bringing the human body into extraterrestrial space? The human body requires oxygen, water, food, disposal of wastes (gaseous, liquid, and solid), a particular temperature range, and probably also gravity to remain healthy for extended periods of time. A human being additionally requires sleep, diversion (entertainment), and appropriate intellectual stimulation in order to achieve optimal performance for short periods of time. [3] Having evolved in a terrestrial biosphere in which all these resources are readily available (though some are at times contested and obtained only through competition), the human body is ill-adapted to the sterility of extraterrestrial space. In order to survive in space, all of these resources must be made available. In principle, this presents no essential problem, but in practical terms this means lifting all these resources out of Earth’s gravity well, until such time as there is sufficient infrastructure off the surface of Earth to provide these resources without immediate recourse to terrestrial sources—again, something that in principle presents no problems, but which in practice is a matter of great difficulty.

Because of the practical expense and difficulty of maintaining the human body in space, especially in comparison to the relative ease of operating a machine in the sterility of space, it has been argued that space science can be done most effectively and efficiently through the use of robotic probes. [4] With the financial resources to support a human presence in space becoming more scarce after the “space race” was won by the US, robotic probes have become the accepted method of doing science beyond Earth for the past several decades. These missions have transformed and are still transforming our knowledge of cosmology. While this strategy has been highly successful, it has given us a certain kind of science, and the science that has emerged from the use of robotic probes is not the only possible science.

2. The Scientific Ellipsis of Tacit Knowledge

The science performed by robotic probes is the result of a long process of development of the scientific method and scientific knowledge. This process had its earliest beginnings in ancient Greece, and accelerated with the scientific revolution. The technological iteration of science that has emerged since the industrial revolution has become a highly refined exercise in picking the low-hanging fruit of sensory perception. This narrow specialization, like so much in the process of industrialization, has yielded disproportionate successes, but it has yielded these gains at the expense of certain blind spots. One of these blind spots is tacit knowledge.

We know more than we can say, more than we can explain, more than we understand how we know what we know. Much of what we know is tacit knowledge, i.e., knowledge that we possess but which we cannot explain or make explicit. [5] Being able to recognize the faces of those familiar to you is an instance of tacit knowledge. You immediately recognize these faces, and yet you cannot say how exactly you recognize them. We can, of course, program a computer to recognize faces, and here we can say exactly how the recognition is accomplished, but this is not how human beings recognize another human face.

Only a small fragment of our knowledge is explicitly formalized. Once we arrive at a method for formalizing knowledge (and this is one of the functions of science), the process of producing and formalizing knowledge can be rendered systematic. Once made systematic, a body of knowledge takes on a life of its own, and the growth of knowledge can be pursued often without reference to the original source of knowledge in human experience. Like the use of scientific instruments to enhance and then to far surpass human senses, the enterprise of scientific knowledge at first enhances our common sense knowledge and then surpasses it. Nevertheless, human experience remains as a potential source of knowledge not yet fully exploited by science, waiting, as it were, for the insights that will capture some heretofore unappreciated and unformalized aspect of human experience that can then, in turn, take on a life of its own that grows independently of its human source.

3. The Excommunication of the Eye

The human body is the original scientific instrument. Science began as we explored the world with the our native sensory endowment. Most scientific instruments began as instruments to augment the human senses, as in the obvious case of the microscope and the telescope, which augment the capacity of the human eye. Such instruments can grow in complexity until human senses are made irrelevant, even while the conceptual framework of the science becomes less anthropocentric by purging itself of human-specific terms and concepts (sometimes called “folk concepts”).

When Benoît Mandelbrot said that, “The eye had been banished out of science. The eye had been excommunicated,” [6] this can be understood both literally and metaphorically. In seeking non-anthropocentric formulations in the sciences, the human eye had indeed been banished from the sciences; the human eye was no longer needed as an instrument in science because it had been replaced by far more sensitive instruments, and in a more radical sense the eye as a contingent relic of anthropomorphic science had to be banished, along with the centrality of the other human sensory organs to scientific knowledge.

The scientific account of sight and all that sight reveals to us of the world is the most advanced instance of science not only exhausting the capabilities of the human body as a scientific instrument, but of going far beyond the capabilities of the human body. The scientific account of vision has far surpassed what the human eye can see, and has become integrated with the fundamental physics that explains the electromagnetic spectrum, of which the eye perceives only a small fraction. (The scientific account of vision has also become integrated with the biology and physiology that explains the details of how the human vision system functions.) The eye can be banished from science because the eye has been surpassed and superseded by science; the eye must be banished from science in order for science to fulfill its promise as objective, i.e., non-anthropocentric, knowledge.

eye spectrum 3

Not all human senses, however, have been exhausted or exceeded by science. Our visceral sensations that reveal gravity, acceleration, and movement are less well understood, and they connect us corporeally to a different area of fundamental physics—that which falls within the purview of general relativity—which cannot yet be reconciled to the particle physics that explains the EM spectrum. Thus within our own bodies we experience the division in physics between quantum theory and general relativity—except that with our body we experience the world as a seamless whole, something we cannot yet do with physics. This is ironic, as the contemporary scientific mainstream view is that the conscious apprehension of the world is deceptive—a mere “user illusion”—and it is only (non-anthropocentric) science that can give us the correct view of the world.

4. Human Experiences Intrinsic to Spacefaring Civilization

While the human body is the original scientific instrument, in so far as we have not yet scientifically mastered all that our senses tell us about the world, the human body remains a valuable instrument for scientific research even in a time of advanced technology. The still unexplained functions of the human body that have yet to be fully exapted for science argue for the continued relevance of human beings as observers in scientific contexts, even in an advanced spacefaring civilization.


[The famous “Blue Marble” photograph of Earth taken 07 December 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometers, or 28,000 miles.]

One of the consequences of knowing more than we can say, i.e., one of the consequences of possessing tacit knowledge, is that we occasionally have experiences that affect us in unpredictable and unprecedented ways. One of these experiences that has emerged from technologies that have expanded the range of human experiences is known as the overview effect. [7] Individuals who have traveled into space and have seen our planet whole from above report an experience of great personal relevance. All of us have had an attenuated experience of the same through the “blue marble” photographs that have show us the vision of Earth from space. This experience has not yet been fully explicated and remains at the level of a profound feeling because we do not yet have a theoretical framework sufficient to clarify and formalize the experience and thus to assimilate it to scientific knowledge. [8]

The overview effect may be understood as an experience intrinsic to spacefaring civilization, and in Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect I suggested that the overview effect as we know it, the view of our planet entire from space, is one among a class of experiences to be studied by what David Dunér has called, “astrocognitive epistemology, what we can learn through extraterrestrial explorations, interactions and encounters.” [9] Further experiences of this class are to be expected as our spacefaring capacity grows in sophistication.

Our natural sensory endowment allows for an overview of Earth, and, if we could place ourselves in space outside our galaxy, we would have a breathtaking overview of the Milky Way—an overview effect that our technology does not yet afford us. What would the rest of the sky beyond the Milky Way look like? Probably we would see the other galaxies of the local group: the Magellanic Clouds and the Helmi Stream would be obvious, and the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies would be visible. Probably other galaxies would be visible as well, and some large scale structure unobscured by the many stars that populate any vision of the universe as viewed from within the Milky Way. We would not, however, see with our natural sensory endowment the faint galaxies captured in deep field images of the universe beyond our galaxy. [10] There are limits to the knowledge yielded by personal experience, just as there are limits to the kind of knowledge derived from robotic probes, so that these approaches to science are complementary.

5. Upper and Lower Bounds of the Overview Effect

The kind of personal knowledge represented by the overview effect, involving human experiences intrinsic to spacefaring civilization, has been limited by the limits of our sensory organs and the limits of our conscious apprehension in understanding our observations. Technological instrumentation expands the range of observation, and may someday also expand the range of conscious apprehension as well. The spacecraft we have constructed to date can be understood as scientific instruments that have enabled the observations that have made the overview effect possible. We cannot yet build the scientific instruments (spacecraft) that would enable the overview of the Milky Way described in the previous section, though we may someday be able to do so, and, if we do, we can predict what we will see. We cannot, however, predict how we will understand and interpret what we see.

With a starship as a scientific instrument, one might employ the time dilation of relativistic travel to arrive at an overview of our galaxy when the Milky Way and Andromeda were colliding. Relativistic travel could be the ultimate time lapse observation tool, allowing us to see and to personally experience scales of time far in excess of ordinary human perception, like the temporal inverse of employing high speed cameras to see phenomena that occur far too rapidly to be observed by ordinary means. Science on a far larger scale than any “big science” to date would be enabled by the use of a starship as a scientific instrument.

We can distinguish between the kind of scientific instruments that enable novel observations. Firstly, a rough distinction can be made between observations that can be made with the unaided eye and observations only possible with instrumentation, with the former giving us direct, personal, immediate, and visceral experience, and the latter providing us with a derivative experience of varying degrees of immediacy. The distinction is rough because it is difficult to say at what point experiences cease to possess the immediate and visceral qualities of personal experience. Watching an event through binoculars seems more immediate than watching on a television screen, and watching an event live on a television screen seems more immediate than watching a recording after the fact on a screen. Thus the immediacy of a personal experience is subject to a certain degree of ambiguity between mediated and unmediated experience.

A further distinction can be made between scientific instruments that register certain readings of phenomena not accessible to human beings without instrumentation, and scientific instruments that place the human observer within a context that allows novel observations to be made. There are, then, at least two ways in which technology can be used to augment our natural sensory endowment: through improvements in the resolution of a particular sense or senses, or through placing the entire observer into a context in which it is possible to observe that which could not be previously observed. The starship as a scientific instrument belongs in the second class of technological augmentations of human experience.

As described in the previous section (and as I noted in Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect), one could never experience, with one’s native sensory endowment, the view provided by the Hubble Space Telescope’s deep field image when this scientific instrument focused on a very small portion of the sky for a long period of time, but if one’s mind and senses were augmented by the technologies of transhumanism—i.e., if the limits of our sensory organs and our consciousness were mitigated or eliminated—it might well become possible to personally observe a deep field view of the cosmos. One might be enhanced so that one could in fact focus on a miniscule portion of the sky for days at a time—something not possible with one’s native cognitive endowment—or consciousness might be directly interfaced with the instrumentation that would make this possible. In an example such as this, technologies of sensory enhancement coincide with technologies that place the observer in a context that enables novel observations.

Why should we be concerned with a personal experience of something like a deep field image of the cosmos? Given a mind shaped by the evolutionary psychology of our particular embodiment and history—and given that this is what makes us human, and is therefore something we are likely to want to retain as our identity—the most powerful (if not transformative) epistemic experiences are those that follow from the use of technology to place a human observer entire into a context that allows immediate personal experience of a phenomenon. A high speed camera is a marvelous scientific instrument, but better still (from an epistemic point of view) would be the technology to speed up the consciousness and sensory capabilities until it were possible to observe high speed phenomena with one’s own eyes.

It is not only our sensory organs that allow us to observe the world. Consciousness, too, is an aspect of the human condition that can be understood as a scientific instrument that gives us a unique and indeed uniquely intimate way of perceiving the world. Consciousness makes it possible for us to “observe” time. This is the scientific instrument least understood among all the faculties of the human condition, and the least integrated into science, even as it is pervasively present. Contemporary science cannot explain what an observer is, or how an observer observes, but it recognizes that an observer is crucial for all science, which must often correct for the perspective and the biases of the observer.

Technologies that could enhance consciousness in the way that we have used technology to enhance our senses are not yet on the horizon, partly because we have no science of consciousness that could be technologically implemented, and partly because of moral objections to the enhancement of consciousness. The efficacy of consciousness enhancing drugs is questionable at this time, while social disapproval and legal penalties stymie systematic research into the enhancement of consciousness. Since consciousness is coupled to all human observations, the only kind of scientific instrumentation that can expand the range of observation, where “observation” is understood in terms of personal experience, are those that place the observer within a context in which novel observations are possible. This is the kind of science that has not been possible with robotic probes.

The transformative nature of observational experiences in which the individual is present as an individual, and observes with his or her own body, is almost certainly a function of several factors, including a reflexive self-awareness of being present as well as those subtle aspects of observation not yet mastered by science. Gestalt experiences that involve the entire body are only possible when the entire body is present in for the experience in question.

We can hold out hope for such transformative observational scientific experiences (i.e., further instances of the class of experiences including the overview experience) wherever physical symmetries hold. It seems unlikely that we could shrink ourselves down in size to be able to observe what electron microscope allows us to see (since symmetries of scale do not hold), but symmetries of space and time imply the possibility of personal knowledge of here or there, now or then, even on a cosmic scale. From this it is obvious that the overview effect is a special case—a limiting case, if you will (following Einstein, who wrote that, “No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.” [11])—of these possibilities of personal observation. The overview effect known to date is, as it were, the lower bound of astrocognitive epistemology. The upper bound of astrocognitive epistemology would be approached by a deep field overview.

6. Observation and the Embodied Mind

The presence of the whole person in making an observation matters because the human mind is, as we now say, embodied; the human body is the corporeal context of the human mind—and one might say with equal justification that the human mind is the cognitive context of the human body. One of the most significant developments in the philosophy of mind over the past several decades has been a rejection of Cartesian dualism and a recognition of and engagement with the “embodied” nature of the mind.

The embodied mind is embodied in a body with an evolutionary history, and the mind no less than the body has been selected for its evolutionary fitness (which does not always entail logical rigor). For some, this is a problem. Daniel Dennett opened his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with this observation:

“Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has always fascinated me, but over the years I have found a surprising variety of thinkers who cannot conceal their discomfort with his great idea, ranging from nagging skepticism to outright hostility. I have found not just lay people and religious thinkers, but secular philosophers, psychologists, physicists, and even biologists who would prefer, it seems, that Darwin were wrong. This book is about why Darwin’s idea is so powerful, and why it promises—not threatens—to put our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation.” [12]

The contemporary iteration of this range of Darwinian rejectionism from nagging skepticism to outright hostility is the controversy over evolutionary psychology, which is sometimes dismissed as unfalsifiable, as indeed Popper once held that the whole of Darwinism was unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific. [13] Moreover, evolutionary psychology is distasteful because it forces us to recognize some unflattering aspects of human nature. In other words, evolutionary psychology is a Copernican punishment of pride of the human intellect. But it doesn’t, or need not, stop there.

The embodied mind cuts both ways: there are reductionist consequences for consciousness, but there are also anti-reductionist consequences for the body (and especially for the central nervous system, which is integrated both into the body and into the world). But the idea of anti-reductionism is so unfamiliar to us that we don’t have the terminology or the concepts to explain it. We can, however, begin to glimpse that evolutionary psychology has edifying as well as humbling implications—a duality that has long been recognized as a consequence of other aspects of the Copernican revolution. We are not the center of the universe, or even the center of our own solar system, but we are part of something that possesses an ineffable grandeur, and our minds are part of this also. Indeed, it is our minds that grasp their own derivation from the cosmos. [14]

7. The Knowledge Argument in Space Science

When the embodied mind is placed in a position to personally observe experiences intrinsic to spacefaring civilization, new forms of knowledge intrinsic to spacefaring civilization may result, and new forms of consciousness may emerge, shaped by the knowledge. This perfectly exemplifies Frank White’s description of the overview effect as, “…the predicted experience of astronauts and space settlers, who would have a different philosophical point of view as a result of having a different physical perspective.” (cf. note [7])

One might hold that nothing new is learned by the personal observation of such experiences. There is, appropriately, a philosophical thought experiment that addresses exactly this question. Known as “Mary’s room” or as the knowledge argument, the thought experiment was originally formulated by Frank Jackson in this way:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?” [15]

An individual might master what I above called, “the fundamental physics that explains the electromagnetic spectrum… [and] the biology and physiology that explains the details of how the human vision system functions,” while never having had personal experience of them. The “Mary’s room” thought experiment is intended to force the question of whether anything is learned when personal experience of a given phenomenon is added to scientific knowledge of the same phenomenon. There is, as yet, no consensus on the question; philosophers disagree on whether Mary learns anything upon leaving Mary’s room.

As a thought experiment, “Mary’s room” it is intended not to give us a definitive answer to a circumstance that is never likely to occur in fact, but to sharpen our intuitions and refine our formulations. The same could be done for the overview effect. We could easily formulate a parallel circumstance to the knowledge argument that addresses the class of astrocognitive epistemological experiences to which the overview effect belongs, according to which some individual has studied scientifically everything there is to know about space travel and human perception in extraterrestrial space, and then the same individual travels into space and experiences this personally. Does the individual learn anything from the personal experience of space travel?

Astronauts and cosmonaut themselves, who have personally experienced this transition from scientific knowledge of what they expect to see, to the actual first person experience, have testified to the impact of the personal experience. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. said, “…no one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got.” [16] Robert Cenker said, “Of all the people I’ve spoken to about the experience of space, only those closest to me can begin to understand. My wife knows what I mean by the tone of my voice. My children know what I mean by the look in my eye. My parents know what I mean because they watched me grow up with it. Unless you actually go and experience it yourself you will never really know.” [17]

If our scientific knowledge of space travel is incomplete, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one learns something from personal experience of a phenomenon incompletely described by science. Indeed, there is an interesting interplay between the problem of tacit knowledge and the knowledge argument. The knowledge argument might be revised so that the situation it describes only holds for mature sciences from which all tacit, folk, and anthropocentric concepts have been purged. [18] Therefore a poorly understood experience such as the overview effect, which has not been fully assimilated to science, might be epistemically augmented by personal experience, but if we possessed an exhaustive account in the context of a mature science, the epistemic augmentation of personal experience would disappear.

The pursuit of mature and definitive formulations of science is as unending as the universe. We might arrive at the mature formulation of a given science, but in so doing new questions will be posed, and we will want to push the frontiers of knowledge further outward, so that there will always be an unknown epistemic margin where personal experiences may epistemically augment our account of the world where no science as yet exists to fully explain what we see. For example, a galactic overview such as described earlier would take place in the context of the continuing expansion of scientific knowledge, and seeing this for ourselves may still contribute to scientific knowledge in unexpected and unanticipated ways. Much is likely to change in ourselves and our civilization by the time we can achieve a galactic overview, so that we cannot predict what we will learn, or even what our science will be like at that time; we can only postulate the possibility of a particular kind of experience, anticipating but not knowing its content.

8. The Interstellar Imperative and the Human Imperative

In a previous Centauri Dreams post, The Interstellar Imperative, I argued that the starship will become the ultimate scientific instrument, “…constituting both a demanding engineering challenge to build and offering the possibility of greatly expanding the scope of scientific knowledge by studying up close the stars and worlds of our universe, as well as any life and civilization these worlds may comprise.” Our future starships could take the form of robotic probes [19], but given what I have written here about the human body as a scientific instrument, and the as-yet-unrealized scientific potential of human experience, the starship as a scientific instrument could only be fully exploited for the purposes of scientific knowledge when coupled with a human presence. Putting human beings in starships and sending them to other words is an indispensible condition of the continued advancement of science and scientific civilization.

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[1] This essay was the basis of my presentation at the 2011 100YSS symposium.

[2] T. E. Hulme, Speculations, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1924, p. 257. And, again, in Hulme’s Further Speculations: “It must be very difficult for the writers on ethics (who seem to be more happily endowed than most of us) to realise how excessively difficult it is for the ordinary modern to realise that there is any real subject ‘Ethics’ which can be at all compared with ‘Logic’ or even with ‘Aesthetic.’ It seems almost impossible for us to look on it as anything objective; everything seems to us arbitrary and human, and we should at a certain age no more think of reading a book on ethics than we should reading one on manners or astrology. There may even seem something ridiculous about the word ‘Virtue’.” (p. 203)

[3] These lists of bodily and intellectual needs are not intended to be exhaustive, but are presented here only to give a sense of the challenges of supporting human life in space.

[4] As a survey of some of these robotic probes, cf., e.g., Great robotic missions to explore space by Pallab Ghosh.

[5] The term “tacit knowledge” is due to Michel Polanyi, whose book The Tacit Dimension is an exposition of tacit knowledge. The idea is developed throughout Polanyi’s works.

[6] From an interview with Benoît Mandelbrot in the NOVA documentary Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension.

[7] The “overview effect” is a term due to Frank White, describing the experience of astronauts and cosmonauts who have seen the Earth whole from orbit or beyond, given exposition in his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. White summarizes the overview effect as, “…the predicted experience of astronauts and space settlers, who would have a different philosophical point of view as a result of having a different physical perspective.” (Frank White, The Overview Effect, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987, p. 4) My posts on the overview effect include The Epistemic Overview Effect, The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking, Hegel and the Overview Effect, The Overview Effect in Formal Thought, Our Knowledge of the Internal World, Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge, and Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect.

[8] On the difference between profundity and clarity cf. The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science and Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science.

[9] David Dunér, “Astrocognition: Prolegomena to a future cognitive history of exploration,” in Humans in Outer Space – Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Ulrike Landfester, Nina-Louisa Remuss, Kai-Uwe Schrogl, and Jean-Claude Worms, Springer, 2011, p. 119. I prefer Pauli Laine’s term “cognitive astrobiology” to Dunér’s “astrocognition,” though Dunér’s analysis of the forms of astrocognition is a helpful framework.

[10] There have been three such “deep field” images from the Hubble Space Telescope, of increasing resolution, the Hubble Deep Field (HDF), the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, (HUDF), and the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF). There is also the Subaru Deep Field (SDF) image.

[11] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory, New York: Plume, 2006, pp. 98-99.

[12] Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Penguin Books, 1995, Preface, p. 11.

[13] Popper changed his opinion on the scientificity of Darwinism over the course of his career. Popper, famous for his definition of scientificity in terms of falsifiability, wrote in his Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiology (1974, section 37), “I have come to the conclusion that Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research programme—a possible framework for testable scientific theories.” Not many years later in “Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind” a lecture delivered at Darwin College, Cambridge, 08 November 1977 (also Chapter VI in Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge, by Gerard Radnitzky, William Warren Bartley, Karl Raimund Popper), Popper said, “…I have changed my mind about the testability and the logical status of the theory of natural selection; and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation. My recantation may, I hope, contribute a little to the understanding of the status of natural selection.”

[14] Evolutionary psychology places the human mind in the context of cognitive astrobiology, because evolutionary psychology itself must eventually be placed in the context of astrobiology, which is the more comprehensive discipline. The human mind placed in the context of cognitive astrobiology, i.e., the embodiment of mind in nature and history, means that, in Carl Sagan’s terms, our minds are star stuff too: “…if you are bothered by the disturbing vision that evolutionary psychology paints of the human mind, take heart, because it also implies this edifying corollary, that the mind is as much of the stars as it is of the earth, as much of the universe at large as of nature, red in tooth and claw.” (Cf. also The Mind as Star Stuff) In this astrocognitive context, the human being has a crucial role to play as an observer in science, and especially in those sciences that will emerge from the comparative study of other worlds, other life, and hopefully also other civilizations.

[15] Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” 1982, Philosophical Quarterly 32: 127–136. I have previously written about the “Mary’s room” thought experiment in Computational Omniscience and Colonia del Sacramento and the Knowledge Argument.

[16] Quoted in Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987, p. 197.

[17] Quoted in Kevin W. Kelley, editor, The Home Planet, Reading, et al.: Addison-Wesley, 1988, p. 142. These astronaut and cosmonaut experiences might be interpreted as experiments that verify the epistemic role of personal experience explored by the knowledge argument.

[18] Cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress

[19] Interstellar probes without a live crew are sometimes referred to as “Bracewell probes,” following the work of Ronald Bracewell, whose papers “Communications from Superior Galactic Communities” and “Interstellar Probes” proposed interstellar probes as a medium for communication among civilizations, as an alternative to the SETI paradigm of radio or optical communication. Cf. Bracewell, R. N. (1960), “Communications from Superior Galactic Communities,” Nature 186 (4726): 670–671, reprinted in A. G. Cameron, ed., Interstellar Communication, New York: W. A. Benjamin, 1963, pp. 243–248, and Bracewell, R. N., “Interstellar Probes,” in A.G.W. Cameron and Cyril Ponnamperuma, eds., Interstellar Communcation: Scientific Perspectives, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974, pp. 102-117.


Hop David August 21, 2015 at 10:26

“Our visceral sensations that reveal gravity, acceleration, and movement are less well understood” And machines also surpass us in this regard. Human visceral sensations would not be able to map lunar mascons as the Grail probes have.

As robots and telepresence progress, the boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world grow more ambiguous. Are dentures or lens implants part of our bodies? Prosthetics that communicate directly with our neural system may be around the corner. Would a mechanical hand be regarded as an extension of our self?

Then there are telerobots such as the Da Vinci surgical robots. Surgeons can snake their robotic eyes and hands through a small hole thus eliminating the need to make a large cut. The Da Vinci robot’s two eyes give depth perception. I’ve talked to a surgeon that says the experience is so immersive that he forgets he’s not actually inside the patient.

At any rate, I view manned vs robotic space exploration as a false dichotomoy.

It’s cost prohibitive to establish space infrastructure via canned meat launched from earth’s surface. The huge mass needed for life support plus Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation make this so.

But tele-operated robots can build facilities to extract local resources for life support and propellent. As well as build shelter. With extra terrestrial propellent we can say good bye to 16 or 20 km/s delta V budgets. With extra-terrestrial water, oxygen and shelter, we can say goodbye to launching horribly massive habs from earth’s surface.

Construction tele-robots become effective when humans arrive. No light lag latency when humans are nearby. And since signal strength falls with inverse square, proximity also gives greater bandwidth. Robot maintenance is easier with on site humans.

Robots are a pre-requisite for a sustained human presence in space.

Antonio August 21, 2015 at 10:57

Apart from the arguments given above, simply compare the performance of the Curiosity rover with that of a professional geologist. It’s pathetic. 10 km traveled and 7 locations drilled in 3 years? C’mon… Or compare the Moon rovers with the astronauts. Men: collected 380.05 kg of lunar rocks. Robots: collected 326 g.

James Stilwell August 21, 2015 at 11:23

It’s hard to conceive of two worlds being separated by 500 light years functioning as a civilization of two worlds…I don’t think anyone here takes seriously the Bell notion of faster than light communication either…it’s just too supernatural…But the trip alone, even eight ships traveling together, lasting 500 years, would yield notable surprises in understanding and coping with human nature…maybe in 500 years Bell won’t be so supernatural either…

Alex Tolley August 21, 2015 at 12:22

I find this essay completely unconvincing. In essence the argument seems to be that humans, unmediated, must be physically present in order to gain some mystical new information.

I agree that machines alone cannot do science, but in practice they are not alone, there are humans guiding and interpreting observations. Yes, the light speed limitation hinders the real-time aspect of data collection, but to argue that humans must be physically present does not seem necessary to me. Can you provide concrete examples, rather than vague philosophical arguments for the veracity of this?

The second issue is cost. If machines can far more cheaply do science than humans, why is it so important for humans to be involved directly? Consider that biologists use machines to do all sorts of research rather than do the research by hand, e.g. counting cell types. Does this really result in a loss of some sort? I seriously doubt it. I think the reverse is true.

I think the real issue we have is can we get some sort of human agency out into the universe, whether uploaded minds or human equivalent (and similar) AI to interact with the observations and direct more through the accumulated knowledge gained. we have robots that can do some of this in the lab today, but what we need is more general human capabilities.

Rather than losing science, lack of human perspective in space will result in a loss of arts, not science. That may indeed be a tragedy.
General Thayer: “Skip philosophy! I’m the one who stays. Why? Because I’m the oldest. You two can tell them back home what we’ve seen much better than I could. Tell them how we looked up and saw the Earth… vulnerable and exposed forever. Never setting in this lunar sky.”

Barnes: “You know what you just proved, General?
You’re the one man that must go back!”

- Destination Moon

tchernik August 21, 2015 at 16:55

Very compelling and heartfelt argument.

And it touches the very motivation for space flight with humans: Why indeed?

Robots are more resilient, require less resources, don’t get bored, don’t breathe, etc, while we humans are frail water sacks that require a delicately balanced environment as much as fishes in an aquarium require the gear keeping them alive. Maybe more delicate than the fishes, because we need several more things to keep us physically and mentally healthy, while I doubt the fishes need as much entertainment, landscape beauty, free spaces, culture and social life as we do.

Basically wherever we go, we’ll need to take a piece of Earth with us. A piece big enough to ensure our physical and mental wellness, with all those requirements I mentioned above and more we haven’t even thought about yet.

That and the tyranny of the rocket equation is what has kept us anchored in this Earth so far. even if we showed that we could visit other worlds, we haven’t done so.

We simply can’t go anywhere else yet, because Earth is really the only place so far where we can find everything our bodies and spirits need.

Then, if Earth is he only place with everything for our happiness, why indeed leave?

For me at least, the answer is simple: because it’s there. Because there are rational, feasible schemes and plans that could bring the human habitation of those far away places. Because we can, and no other creature of this Earth can even dream about doing it. Because we are human, and humans dream of impossible things and that differentiates us from the rest of the living and non-living world.

Because we are possibly the only ones alive in a very big volume of space, and thus, we are possibly the only ones with the ability of bringing Earthly life to a dead cosmos.

I see no dichotomy between human and robots either, because robots will be our emissaries, bringing increasing human activity and infrastructure over there. Up to the point when we will have enough for going out there and living with all the requirements of a healthy human life.

It can be after decades or centuries, but the out-pour of machine activity will prepare the eventual arrival of humans. And in my belief, we will be there, in the flesh, with all the pieces of Earth we need, and more, because those pieces will be new ones, new portions of Earth’s ecosphere that weren’t born on Earth, but designed and made by us.

Enzo August 21, 2015 at 18:08


Curiosity cost $2.5B. Human Mars missions cost estimates I have seen are $30B , $100B and $450B. The first one seems ridiculously low considering the cost of the space station of $100B.
Consider the following :
1) Politically these costs are unacceptable and that’s why a human Mars mission is always somewhere 20-30 years into the future.
You need a political reason to spend that kind of money and there isn’t one.
2) Scientifically, it is extremely inefficient: the greatest majority of the cost is spent to send humans, feed them, return them safely etc. Only a tiny portion on science. Can you really compare a few people on a small spot on the surface of Mars compared to the coverage of $100B of probes, sample returns, etc from multiple locations ?
3) There will be no human mission to Mars before the ’30s. By this time robots capabilities will be much better for the same cost. I have seen a FAQ on Mars Society page that says that robots can’t step over a hole : what a laugh, they can now.
4) The cost of a human mission to Mars is already dragging down scientific exploration of the solar system. In theory there is a budget for planetary exploration and another (much bigger) for human flight. In practice, the former subsidizes the latter by financing the bias that NASA has for Mars missions (to help the human mission that never happens). Recently ~$6B were allocated to Mars alone (Curiosity, Maven, Insight, MSL-2) and the could not spare $2B for Europa. After 2017 there will be no mission even on its way to the outer solar system (maybe New Horizon to a KBO ?)

I’m not against human space flight, but I see little effort to actually stay there. Very little studies of Biosphere-like experiments that would be the basic block for something that does not need supplies every 3 months like the space station. Not a closed ecosystem but at least a closed system that can support humans.

DCM August 21, 2015 at 18:52

The moral imperative is that spaceflight is ultimately the key to long term survival of humans and earth life. Period, end of discussion.

Black Sci-Fi August 22, 2015 at 7:23

FACT: Virus are the most successful species at biological self-adaptation to new environments. And, they do it without tools or a lab, a rocket or warp drive. The journey of a virus population from one corner of your body as a point of origin to another body thousands of miles away is no less of a (scientific?) achievement than for “humans” to go to Mars.

Perhaps the answers to human deep space exploration/survival are right under noses. Think: birds = wings = airplanes.

But, we already know that….

The technical/biological requirements for deep space travel, which I support in theory, require “humanity” to modify/adapt our basic human DNA, not unlike a virus population, for the specific purpose of making deep space travel “survivable”. Or, the invention of machines and medical/biological survival systems to mimic those things necessary to take our very specific survival needs along with us.

But, we already know that…

These types of planet wide scientific adventures require the will and “consent” of all the people of the earth to be both beneficial and successful. And, the point of origin of these ideas shouldn’t be to kill our fellow humans. A good place to start such an endeavor would be to stricken racism and theocratic spirituality from science.

Do we already know that..??

The authors nod to the Greeks, rather than the Egyptians, as being the “source” of and primary inventors/creators of the philosophies , maths and scientific method are limiting the potential participation of the broadest swath of our human species to offer solutions to these problems. I often reflect on the reality that the cure for cancers is locked up in the imaginations of children in the world’s ghettos.

Do we already know that..??

Willful ignorance will keep us from”successful” human deep space exploration. We destroy the very list of necessities for human deep space survival, our home planet environment, and are only left to contemplate an argument for survival/escape without using the very cooperation of human capital needed to solve the problems of such an endeavor. A quick look at diversity around the NASA/ESA mission control centers for the various planetary robotic missions is all you need to deduce that scientific educational cultural pluralism we claim in theory is absent in practice.

But, we already know that…..

Our cycles of war and the destruction of civilizations (ISIS?) and the subtle and gross knowledge those destroyed civilizations contained and most importantly the reason (nationalism/racism, et al) for their destruction is more limiting than any potential physical obstacles to human deep space exploration or any reasons to do so in the first place.

Yes, humanity can and does multitask for discoveries along our economic and scientific frontiers. But, wearing an oxygen mask on Earth to breathe and excluding more than half of our national/global population from education in the 7 liberal arts certainly makes the pursuit of finding those solutions to our basic immediate survival here on Earth, and excluding the source of all future knowledge and solutions for deep space adventures, a much more difficult problem and a much, much harder sell to the majority whose support we seek.

But we already know that…don’t we…???

John Freeman August 22, 2015 at 9:51

As an artist I find this argument heartfelt, sincere and worthy of attention for grasping that which some of my lecturers at university (where i studied physics withh space technology) did not: that knowledge is not simply retaining facts.


Apollo showed us the foolishness of exploring with people. True, apollo was not cheifly about science and exploration, but it was one of its goals, and with forty years of hindsight we can know just how much apollo missed (millions of tons of lunar ice and four billion years of preserved organics, lunar gas eruptions, volcanism as recently as a billion years ago,etc etc) and how rediculous the forty years of insistance that apollo had answered all significant lunar mysteries was. This was a program that people died for, but its scientific promise died on the rocks of expense and failing political will.

Let us explore, not do stunts. If the will is not there to foot the bill for sending humans unless we need a propaganda tool then let us send robots which will do more (more slowly its true) for less cost and far less risk. One day we should indeed send people, so that the human experiance of seeing other worlds can become part of our culture. But it is blinkered to think that some philosophically interesting ideas on the nature of knowledge and the significance of the overview effect justify sending people when probes should go. We should send people to the stars … whatever ‘people’means by then, as they may be little seperating man from machine….. but for the foreseeable future we should be thinking of whether we could build a new horizons on steroids, not the uss enterprise.

StanErickson August 22, 2015 at 9:56

The majority of the argument is that since we do not understand how the human brain does associations, we should explore space. If the goal is to have new experiences that force us to figure out how we think, there must be easier ways to do it. DCM’s comment is on point. We go to survive. discusses the different memes that might motivate a civilization to star travel.

DCM August 22, 2015 at 13:09

“Black Sci-Fi August 22, 2015 at 7:23

The authors nod to the Greeks, rather than the Egyptians, as being the “source” of and primary inventors/creators of the philosophies , maths and scientific method are limiting the potential participation of the broadest swath of our human species to offer solutions to these problems. I often reflect on the reality that the cure for cancers is locked up in the imaginations of children in the world’s ghettos.

Poetics can be inspiring but philosophy is largely dead weight and an impediment. Technology is the tool.
I repeat: Just do it.

Project Studio August 22, 2015 at 20:52

@Alex Tolley
“Rather than losing science, lack of human perspective in space will result in a loss of arts, not science. That may indeed be a tragedy.”
“Poetics can be inspiring but philosophy is largely dead weight and an impediment. ”
@J. N. Nielsen
“One of the most significant developments in the philosophy of mind over the past several decades has been a rejection of Cartesian dualism and a recognition of and engagement with the “embodied” nature of the mind.”

Science is a natural philosophy. The study of mind and matter, observed and observer being insuperable, is intrinsic to the fundamentals of quantum and, ultimately, cosmology. Consider da Vinci, to him art and science was all a common study. Self knowledge is ultimately essential for any knowledge in the human context. Outside the human context there doesn’t seem to be any knowledge, only data, frequencies without colour or, for that matter, beauty.

What I am taking away from this article, and it is a new thought to me, that the physical evolution of humanity in a wider cosmos can be considered it’s own scientific experiment, and the end results of that evolution being greater self knowledge than could be achieved by just sitting at home for eons. This may be the tacit knowledge that those who feel in-person cosmic expansion is justified. The notion can still be debated, “Without going outside his door, one may understand all that takes place under the sky; without looking out from his window, one may perceive the unvarying way of the heavens.” Just the same, one wonders what we might become venturing beyond the sky.

Harold Daughety August 23, 2015 at 2:04

Our survival depends on somehow limiting the growth of the population, ending wars, cleaning up the environment. Traveling to the stars is a fantasy at present and probably for at least the next few hundred years. Terrorist attacks are not only possible but probable. It may be possible to have self-sustaining colonies in near earth space in time to preserve a remnant of humanity if that is done with private financing. Governments around the world are committing more funds to social programs and there is little hope that space programs will get any funds for manned missions. A little pragmatism and less hubris seems to be called for.

Brett Bellmore August 23, 2015 at 7:34

“Robots are more resilient, require less resources, don’t get bored, don’t breathe, etc”

All virtues your common rock demonstrates to an even greater extent than a robot.

Why should we explore space with humans? Because WE are humans, and we want a human future. We don’t want to create our robotic successors, and then retire from the scene. (Most of us don’t, anyway.)

That being the case, we need to learn to live in space, we need to be involved all through the process. It needs to be a human endeavor.

Really, what we need to do, is condense a college campus into a spacecraft, and send it around the solar system, exploring. Not just the top people in the fields, but the promising students, too.

We could have done that long since using orion, but we’ll be able to do it soon enough using much more complex and lower performance propulsion technologies.

craig August 23, 2015 at 9:29

Black Sci-Fi reminded me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – a psychological theory where the basic necessities need to be met before self actualization can take place. I would think that human space exploration appears to be in the self actualization category. I understand the long term survival argument, but I still think that responding on such a long term level (probably outside of our lifetimes) requires a high degree of abstraction akin to self actualization.

I do think it’s a good point that there are potential scientists out there not receiving the education/opportunities that they would need to contribute to something like space exploration. When you consider how much of the world lives in poverty, there are great number of intelligent people out there who are simply unable to contribute to the world like they could. Probably half of the world cannot even consider something like an advanced degree in physics. Nor can those local populations consider giving their tax money to something like a space program (if they can afford to pay taxes at all). Human potential is currently being wasted by issues much larger than the NASA/ESA budget.

I enjoyed the article, and it seems like there is a great argument there, but it is still, at the end of the day, a luxury of sorts to send human beings into deep space. We either need to lower the cost or find ways to justify the expense. While I hope that it gets cheaper, it is my deeper hope that one day humanity will be in a position to agree that it is indeed worth the expense.

Daniel Högberg August 23, 2015 at 10:07

As the narrow minded/ill educated “common man” (i dont talk about good grades in school, but about open-mindness and a burning interest in our world and civilazation) on earth never will accept the extreme measures that would be needed to stop the increasing over-population (like sterilization of everyone after they´ve had their first child) we must push into space if we want to survive as a species. Theres is unlimited space, materials, discoveries and adventures out there, we just have to reach out and grab it!

Robert Clark August 23, 2015 at 11:11

Another possibility is that after the Singularity and we are melded to machine intelligence, a mission duration of a thousand years would hardly bat an eyelash, or flip a transistor.

Bob Clark

DCM August 23, 2015 at 11:46

“Harold Daughety August 23, 2015 at 2:04

Our survival depends on somehow limiting the growth of the population, ending wars, cleaning up the environment. Traveling to the stars is a fantasy at present and probably for at least the next few hundred years. Terrorist attacks are not only possible but probable. It may be possible to have self-sustaining colonies in near earth space in time to preserve a remnant of humanity if that is done with private financing. Governments around the world are committing more funds to social programs and there is little hope that space programs will get any funds for manned missions. A little pragmatism and less hubris seems to be called for.”

Some of those problems are illusions and so are their “solutions”.
As people become more prosperous their population falls, their lives become longer and healthier, and their rate of reproduction slows. The way to do this is not through totalitarian regulation of the minutia of every individual life, and killing millions of “useless eaters” but through freedom and capitalism.
Similarly, totalitarian control doesn’t end war or there would long ago have been no war between countries or within them.
You don’t solve all the world’s problems and then set out elsewhere; the world’s Cold War problems were the only thing that drove people to the moon. You do it all at once.
But interstellar travel probably won’t be done on any large scale by living persons for a couple of centuries, and private funding is indeed a good solution to many problems.
Claiming others are motivated by “hubris” is nonsense just like claiming that the heliocentric theory or evolution “damaged mankind’s ego”. Humanity has no ego. Those theories shook up entrenched beliefs that profited powerful persons and organizations; the response wasn’t “wounded ego” but threatened social power and threatened bank accounts. “Ego” is a freudian concept meaning one’s conscious identity and conscious thought processes.

In order to prepare for an interstellar or even interplanetary civilization such outdated notions as “humanity’s ego” or solving all the world’s problems have to be jettisoned.
Look back a second: did millions of Europeans invading and settling in the Americas occur after Europe became peaceful and prosperous? Did it make Europe prosperous and peaceful?
This is why philosophy is an impediment. because it can be likened to the fossilized remains of earlier beliefs that people erroneously believe are still alive.

Jer August 23, 2015 at 12:52

I feel as though so much was conveyed, explained, and described in this article so compellingly but so much that would have been essential was left utterly unexplored.
If we perceive Science as having one (of many) primary objectives of taking data and concept and abstraction and providing path to conclusion and application, then we could find value in finding out where/how this transaction takes place. I would argue that the Human body, though it senses its surroundings and tries to apply a conceptual structure or patterning to the object/situation (and cannot necessarily articulate an empirical process but retains much data), there is further an underlying motivation to this process. It is of course to envision the possibilities of whether we can eat it, find threat from it, find shelter within it, use it to increase the social standing of our community from it, or otherwise use it. The Human being essentially is a visionary, planner, and exploiter who rearranges objects into ‘use’ patterns irrespective of how distant the knowledge gathering intention. This is the human usefulness to the scientific exploration process: participant in individual and species promotion. And this is as much a part of the sensory + analysis + ‘use’ process inherent in the very pathway from sensory organ to processing ‘unit’. It is essentially a complete process non-sensical to divide and partition. When you send the planner in to space you get the tacit knowledge and the tacit plans/visions/exploits. This is a different kind of understanding, a direct formulation of needs, as is informed by purposefully looking around and changing focus and concentration. It may even be possible that some of the conceptual understanding of the tacit knowledge may be difficult to articulate and show empirical process because it has already been transformed to exploit potential and may need to be down-sampled to concept. My 2 cents in a consciousness stream – likely incoherent to all but the most creative and tolerant mind.

Jer August 23, 2015 at 13:13

I suppose that I took this article to not be a human vs machine piece as much as should a human being (in its current state of evolution) ever go out into space beyond the Moon. Assuming that we will overcome all threats near (overpopulation, resources, etc) and far (asteroids, etc.) before Sol goes, is there scientific value in ever forming a human expedition?

ljk August 23, 2015 at 18:02

Antonio said on August 21, 2015 at 10:57:

“Apart from the arguments given above, simply compare the performance of the Curiosity rover with that of a professional geologist. It’s pathetic. 10 km traveled and 7 locations drilled in 3 years? C’mon… Or compare the Moon rovers with the astronauts. Men: collected 380.05 kg of lunar rocks. Robots: collected 326 g.”

But putting humans on Luna and Mars to do a “faster” job would cost many billions more and does not look like it will happen for decades more, if ever (the dates keep getting pushed out every year). So I would rather have a “slow” robotic rover on those worlds taking and transmitting the actual scientific data than wait until a “quicker” human shows up.

Besides, look at how much we have gotten back with interest on the MERs Spirit and Opportunity, which were only though to last between 120 and 150 days tops. That is directly from PI Steven Squyers. To keep even a small group of humans on Mars alive and functioning for over a decade would have cost a fortune in supplies alone. The rovers just needed some daily sunlight and the occasional dusting, which they also got free of charge courtesy of the Martian dust devils.

If you want to colonize Mars, send humans. If you want to scientifically explore the Red Planet as an efficient primary goal, send robots with AI.

ljk August 23, 2015 at 21:29

John Freeman said on August 22, 2015 at 9:51:

“Apollo showed us the foolishness of exploring with people. True, apollo was not cheifly about science and exploration, but it was one of its goals, and with forty years of hindsight we can know just how much apollo missed (millions of tons of lunar ice and four billion years of preserved organics, lunar gas eruptions, volcanism as recently as a billion years ago,etc etc) and how rediculous the forty years of insistance that apollo had answered all significant lunar mysteries was. This was a program that people died for, but its scientific promise died on the rocks of expense and failing political will.”

If we wanted to explore Luna for scientific knowledge, robotic probes would indeed have done the job and for a lot less money. The Soviets proved this with their Luna sample return landers and Lunakhod rovers. Granted the Luna probes did not return large samples of the lunar regolith, but had they been designed to or if the Soviets had sent more to sample a variety of places, the same results would have been achieved. And I think the West at least partially deliberately ignored the accomplishments of the two Lunakhod rovers, which operated on the lunar surface for over a year each. See some results below:

Automated space probes have been proving their worth (not to mention their relative inexpensiveness and durability) since the dawn of the Space Age. As AI improves they will only get better. We may not even need to return samples from Mars and other worlds as in situ surface analysis technology is also steadily improving, which will save a lot of money and negate the risk of losing the purpose of the mission if the return technology happened to fail at some critical point.

Of course humans will want to venture out and they will, but the main reasons will still take precedence over science and/or science will be used as a good cover story, just like with Apollo. As we can see from the news on any given day, the players may have changed since the 1960s, but the real motivations for putting humans into space are still generally the same.

Our first interstellar travelers will not be noble astronauts. My money is on a superrich type who will build his own little empire cult following and place them inside a hollowed out planetoid and then send out of the Sol system towards one of the Earthlike worlds we will likely find by the time such space infrastructure is going to happen. These will be among our first living human ambassadors to the Milky Way galaxy. Think about that.

ljk August 23, 2015 at 21:43

I want to add: NASA had originally planned for their lunar Surveyor landers to include a small rover and even the possibility for returning samples of the regolith to Earth. Here is the rover:

Both plans were scrapped when it was obvious they would have interfered with focus on the manned Apollo missions plus made them look kind of superfluous if the real reason for going to Luna was for science as NASA and other claimed was the top priority. They did the same thing regarding the first satellites a decade earlier, saying their efforts to place a satellite in Earth orbit was all about IGY – the International Geophysical Year – and not about beating the Soviets in the geopolitical arena. Still believe that one?

So if all we really wanted was to scientifically explore Earth’s natural satellite and bring back some samples of its surface for analysis, robots could have done the job. They had the technology, they just chose to focus on the manned missions, which while they did bring back a lot of rocks, did not extend into permanent science bases and settlements as was originally implied. And look at all we have learned about Luna since 1972, all due to robot probes.

DCM August 24, 2015 at 4:19

Sitting here forever with detailed knowledge of dead worlds. Is that inspiring or what…..

ljk August 24, 2015 at 9:40

DCM said on August 24, 2015 at 4:19:

“Sitting here forever with detailed knowledge of dead worlds. Is that inspiring or what…..”

Define what you mean by a “dead” world. Does an alien globe need to have little critters (or talking monkeys with car keys) crawling all over it to be considered “alive”? Many worlds in our Sol system are very much “alive” in their geology and even climates in certain cases. Even a distant world like Pluto is showing activity in the possible form of cryovolcanoes or at least certainly internal heat.

The Sol system is not dead, we are just still smarting from the discoveries over half a century ago that the clouds of Venus do not hide steaming swamps full of dinosaurlike creatures roaming through them and that the canals of Mars were not only not made by advanced beings trying to save their dying planet but that they did not really exist at all.

Now your comment about “sitting here”. Will having a small collection of astronauts sitting in a domed structure on Mars make a real difference with all that wonderful and useful knowledge about our celestial neighborhood we have been collecting for centuries now? Because you know we won’t have an actual colony on the Red Planet or even an Apollo style mission to that world for several more decades at least (unless a really rich guy makes it happen with his own private space effort). So how will that make our gathered knowledge less valuable by “sitting here” on Earth, because we aren’t going anywhere in person any time soon, let us be honest here. Especially if we are counting on either NASA or the Russians to do the job. China and India seem more sincere about the effort, but they will not be ready to colonize another world for decades, too, so the issue remains.

This illustrates the real problem, that space advocates do not have a well-defined idea about WHY we want to put humans in the Final Frontier. If it is for science, machines have always done a better and less expensive job of it and will only become even more efficient as technology progresses.

Do we want to send humans to Mars and elsewhere so we can feel like we are going there in person? A machine with VR capabilities will really give you that feeling of being there. In fact, be honest, the quality of images these days can make you feel that way just by staring at them on your laptop screen.

Do we want to colonize space in person in order to make sure humanity survives as a species? Well that is a reason but so far it doesn’t seem to have really gripped humanity as a whole enough for them to really put their vocal support and – more importantly – money behind our space programs. And as I have said elsewhere, if we are going into space largely to survive, then why go to all that effort just so a few of us don’t die? And if we attempt to escape Earth only because of some impending global doom, the massive panic and mob violence will likely preclude any salvation via space rocket.

Again, not saying space colonization will not happen no matter what logical and practical reasons might stand in our way. What I wonder is will the current crop of space advocates still support it if the noble and brave astronauts turn out to be corporations wanting to make tons of money off mining the planetoids and the “astronauts” are mostly blue collar type workers and a few supervisors who are not held in awe of the stars. Or what if space is used to get rid of undesirables or some cult thinks it can only achieve true enlightenment on some alien planet in another solar system?

Human history has shown that most early explorers were doing it for the money and glory of their nations, not for science. Once again science had to take a back seat and be grateful for whatever scraps fell or were thrown in its direction. Do you think the US Government would ever have funded Apollo just to see what the Moon was made of?

So sit back and really think about why we want to put humans into the wider galaxy. I am not saying it cannot or should not be done, but let us not do it for the wrong reasons or for reasons that will ensure the people with the purse strings will never hand over the money. Because it should be pretty clear that so far the reasons most space advocates declare are not turning into colonies and starships.

Antonio August 24, 2015 at 9:57


I assume your cost estimate of $30B is from Mars Direct architecture. That cost is for FIVE MISSIONS each with FOUR ASTRONAUTS staying in Mars 500 DAYS EACH. So you have 30/20 = $666M per astronaut, much cheaper than Curiosity’s $2.5BN and certainly with hugely more scientific return.

Also, politically, it’s perfect affordable. The $30B are spent during 20 years (10 years for R&D and a mission launched every 2 years). NASA’s yearly budget is around $18B.

tchernik August 24, 2015 at 16:41

@Brett Bellmore

“All virtues your common rock demonstrates to an even greater extent than a robot.”

I fully agree with you. Dead matter and celestial globes are interesting in an intellectual sense, as the notes in a museum or the paintings and statues there are interesting: only if we gaze at them.

On the other hand, life is really interesting by itself. Those thinking otherwise are victims of some philosophical nihilism and not really compatible with the ideals of those pushing space settlement forward.

John August 25, 2015 at 3:36

$30 bn is widely regarded as being grossly optimistic – IIRC (though I will do some re-reading if I get time, to remind myself) thats not true Mars direct that’s Zubrin’s take on Mars direct, and I have a very low opinion. And I wouldn’t try to break a potential Mars architecture down on a cost per astronaut basis anyway as large bits of the architecture, and the support efforts on the ground, will cost similar amounts whether you send four astronauts per mission or one, and whether you send one mission or five. A good example is hab module R and D: It’s the multi year development effort to develop and test the hab (and ways of getting it to the martian surface intact and useable) that costs. Once you’ve done that making and deploying ten isn’t too much more expensive than making and deploying one.

Rovers have spent over a decade on the Martian surface, orbiters even longer doing analysis from orbit, not hundreds of days. And (here’s my major point) when I was 10 a mars mission was 15 to 20 years away, When I was 15 it was 15 to 20 years away. I’m 32 and it’s still 15 to 20 years away. That is almost the very definition of a pipe dream, and it annoys me intensely that this con is still perpatrated on the space exploration community. You don’t have to believe me, at this point I’m confident that the evidence in another 8 years (when I’m 40) will still support my position – though I’d be happy to be wrong.

As for worlds without life being dead and interesting.. have you loked at the storms of Jupiter? Or Io? Or considered the possibilities for chemical complexity on titan? Life isn’t the only game in space exploration guys, and we’re far to focussed on it IMHO.

DCM August 25, 2015 at 4:53

We don’t need widespread hopes and plans for humanity to survive by expanding elsewhere. We only need to expand elsewhere.

John August 25, 2015 at 8:04

Bah, I’m getting mars direct muddled up with other things – yes I’m a fool and Mars direct is Zubrin’s own brainchild, not just a version of it. Which doesn’t make the 30 bn figure any more realistic, or invalidate anything else.

I truly don’t see what the disaster is if it turns out that the beautiful and complex worlds of our solar system are beautiful and complex without life, or that the best way to explore them is with machines by proxy instead of sending people. The goal of sending people is surely settlement, PR, or for-its-own-sake achievement. I’m fine with that, but I’m interested in science and exploration, and I think manned spaceflight for other purposes owes it to the world to be honest about what its real purposes are – and if it’s politically driven we should not get our hopes up for anything to actually happen.

Antonio August 26, 2015 at 7:29

People say that humans are less efficient than robots. I prove that humans are more efficient than robots.

Then people say that robots are cheaper than humans. I prove that robots aren’t cheaper than humans.

Now people say that Mars Direct cost estimates are wrong.

I’m getting tired of being the only one that has to prove what he says.

John, if you say that cost estimates are wrong YOU HAVE TO PROVE IT.

John August 26, 2015 at 11:27

Actually I said that the 30 billion number was widely regarded as optimisitic – there’s a difference. I’m not going to sit here and attempt the math. What I’ll do is , oh, around five minutes internet searching, and then give you some quotes to give you a flavour of how many estimates of the cost of a Mars mission there are and what they usually look like:
“The expert panel puts the total cost of a 20-year program culminating in a manned mission to Mars in the range of $80 to $100 billion.”

“NASA estimates peg the overall expenditures at about $100 billion over 30 or 40 years, Sherwood said, but those numbers may be too low.
The International Space Station (ISS), after all, was initially anticipated to cost $10 billion over 10 years. But it ended up costing 10 times that, and took nearly three decades to assemble”

“If human missions to Mars could be
accomplished according to the Mars Direct
plan, with its relatively short development
schedule and accepting the higher risks
associated with the very limited testing
philosophy, the estimates show that a human
Mars program could cost less than the
Apollo moon program. However, the
development cost estimates were found to
be very sensitive to potential mass growth of
the launcher and spacecraft elements.
While it was not explicitly addressed in this
study, one way to enable a short
development cycle and limited test scenario
as assumed in the Mars Direct plan is by
performing predecessor missions to mature
the required technologies and processes
prior to the human Mars mission. These
activities would require additional time and
funding in advance of the human mission
“A ballpark cost of the first Mars mission in 2035 would total $230 billion.”
“Notionally despatched in February 2031, the mission’s journey from Earth to Mars would take six to seven months in a spacecraft powered by an advanced cryogenic fuel propulsion system.

Estimates of the cost of mounting a manned Mars mission vary enormously, from $20bn to $450bn. ”

… so I’d say it’s a fair statement that the Mars Direct numbers a widely regarded as being optimistic for a Mars mission.

This is not the place to launch into a detailed discussion of the various schemes and how realistic they are, but there are a lot of forum pages out there debating it. I recommed forum for some in depth discussion with NASA engineers and scientists. Enjoy :) ! Zubrin, by the way, claims it could be done for 5 billion if a private company adopted Mars Direct. Read into that what you will.

Lastly – and it really is lastly as I’ll close my trap hereafter: There are a lot of folk all across the net trying to prove to the world that a manned mission to Mars would be the most efficient way to explore it. The people whose business is actually exploring Mars – NASA, ESA, etc – keep sending robots. Given how much fuss they make about their budgets being squeezed every year I’m very surprised that they haven’t gotten their act together for a manned mission if astronauts really are more efficient and cheaper. Instead they stick with the robots – read into that what you will as well.
That’s it, I’m done – I will read your reply(s) with great interest and thank you in advance for them

John August 26, 2015 at 13:18

…and by the way even if you could break down the cost for individual astronauts the simple way you have, 30 billion/20 is 1.5 billion not 666 million. Sorry – I tutor Maths so it kind of nags at me. I”l be quiet now.

Antonio August 27, 2015 at 4:57

John said:

“Actually I said that the 30 billion number was widely regarded as optimisitic – there’s a difference. I’m not going to sit here and attempt the math. What I’ll do is , oh, around five minutes internet searching, and then give you some quotes to give you a flavour of how many estimates of the cost of a Mars mission there are and what they usually look like:”

That doesn’t prove anything. It’s like saying that, since nobody before the Wright brothers could fly and object heavier than air, then they failed too.

It’s quite intelectually dishonest to criticize something and not giving any proof or reason, particularly when that something is another person’s project. People call it libel.

ljk August 27, 2015 at 10:12

NASA won’t be funding a manned mission to Mars any time soon, despite the noises and power point presentations they keep showing us. Sure Obama and the current NASA administrator said it will happen in the 2030s, but that is all talk, not Kennedy’s grand 1961 speech about a man on the Moon (JFK didn’t really care about space, either).

They won’t be in power by then so they’ve put the task on the shoulders of others, who will not be obliged to take it over. In fact depending on their political party they may be obliged NOT to take on anything Obama declared in order to remain in favor with his or her cronies.

As it stands with the current crop of US Presidential candidates for 2016, I don’t see any of them doing any kind of support for NASA outside of how it can support the military space efforts. Trump has already made it clear in a one-sentence answer recently that he doesn’t consider space a priority or something that he takes seriously in any case (if he even understands it at all).

I keep hope the private sector can do what almost no other government sponsored space agency seems able or willing to do regarding manned space, but so far the focus seems to be on that Mars One farce, which has no plan, no resources, and no real support – but now they are asking for billionaires to step up to the plate. This will only hurt space support even more. Elon Musk seems to be one of our few real hopes left.

So keep picking over the details of that imaginary 30 billion dollar budget for Mars. While you argue semantics you continue to miss on getting the public to push their politicians to give more support for space. And this is why we won’t be colonizing the Sol system any time soon. At least the machines are still a cheap enough alternative to do real space science, something that imaginary astronauts and bickering space advocates just can’t quite compete with.

John August 27, 2015 at 13:10

What LKJ said: We need to be writing to our governments urging them to spend the money whatever thed figure is, not arguing about the figure.

John August 27, 2015 at 13:11

Edit: ….whatever the figure is (within reason)…..

ljk August 27, 2015 at 19:06

The author of The Martian, Andy Weir, said the following in an interview last week:

“NASA says they can do it by 2035, and I’m sure they could, given enough funding…. “But I don’t have faith in Congress to give them enough money to make that happen, so I’m being a little more conservative — going [with] 2050.”

From the article here:

It is ironic that Wernher von Braun said back in 1954 that humanity would probably not send actual representatives of our species to the Red Planet until the 2050s, one century hence in his future:

For anyone growing up in the 1960s, von Braun’s pronouncement just before the dawn of the Space Age seemed quaint, as we were told multiple times that astronauts might be going to Mars by the 1980s, heck maybe even 1971 when our two worlds would next be at their closest! I even recall as a kid that a manned Mars mission by 2000 would be the latest NASA would ever dare to defer that dream. After the post-Apollo lunar colonies were underway, of course.

I did not post this out of some perverse joy at not having a manned Mars expedition any time soon, just to show that my statements above were not pulled from thin air. This is something we should seriously ponder when grand space colonization plans are being made so we can make them happen rather than become disappointed yet again when the general populace and the politicians decide yet again to stay focused on Earth.

Some related articles of high relevance:

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