Is the urge for exploration innate to our species, or is it a vestigial disorder? Rand Simberg takes on the question at The Space Review this week, an article I came across thanks to a link at Music of the Spheres, which hosts the latest Carnival of Space this week. If you have an interest in simulators and flying (and as a now inactive but still interested CFII, I can relate to that!), you’ll want to be reading Music of the Spheres regularly. It’s a fine and enthusiastic blog frequently updated with space-related software discussions, and one I’ve been reading for years to follow Bruce’s adventures with the ORBITER simulator.

But back to exploration: Simberg questions whether the exploratory impulse isn’t disruptive in modern society, pointing out that most people in the world live out their lives within miles of the place where they were born, and suggesting that those who want to push a human agenda in space need a better justification than this. The candidates? Fear is one, as in fear of space debris that could wreak havoc on our planet. An even better one is greed (maybe ‘the profit motive’ sounds a little better):

The vast amount of resources in the universe resides off the planet. For example, there are single asteroids that contain a trillion dollars worth (at current market rates—no doubt retrieving that amount would depress prices considerably, not a bad thing) of platinum-group metals, used for fuel cells and other new energy applications. The same technologies that can divert errant asteroids might also allow us to retrieve and mine them.

Sunlight can be collected continuously in orbit 24/7, and there may be prospects for using it not only off the planet, but sending it down here as well. In general, opening up new natural resources means vastly increasing planetary (and solar system) wealth.

But despite the ‘fear and greed’ emphasis in his post, Simberg believes the biggest reason for opening up space is the opportunity to improve our social and political lives, and the chance to create a new laboratory for advancing the cause of freedom off-planet.

“One in which we can continue to advance the ideals of Locke, Burke, Smith and others, and escape the romantic and misguided ideals of Rousseau about the perfectability of man, rather than his institutions, that resulted in the brutal deaths of tens of millions over the past decades.”

Space offers that laboratory, but Simberg would pitch it in terms not of a vision for space ‘exploration,’ but rather space ‘development.’ Would switching the emphasis renew public interest in space, or would it simply be perceived (if perceived at all) as no more than a marketing change by people with a commercial or governmental funding axe to grind? I’ll stick with that exploratory impulse, thanks — I believe in it — rather than buying into the idea of exploration as a symptom of attention-deficit disorder (Simberg quotes The Economist on that peculiar idea). But attack Rousseau’s intellectual heirs and the so-called ‘perfectability of man’ and I’m on your side, making this provocative piece easy to recommend.