We use strategies to weigh the issues around us and maximize our chances for success. Can we create a strategy not just for a specific short-term goal but for the survival and growth of our entire species? In the essay that follows, Michael Michaud looks at the elements of such a vision, one that by necessity takes us out of our own biosphere and into the cosmos. As long-time Centauri Dreams readers know, Michaud is well suited to discussing the resolution of conflict and the attainment of goals. His lengthy career in the U.S. Foreign Service led to posts as Counselor for Science, Technology and Environment at U.S. embassies in Paris and Tokyo, and Director of the State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology. He has also been chairman of working groups at the International Academy of Astronautics on SETI issues, and is the author of the highly regarded Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials (Springer, 2007).
By Michael A.G. Michaud
We are living amid four revolutions that draw human minds beyond the limits of the Earth.
* Astronomical exploration of the cosmos by ground-based instruments, orbiting observatories, and robotic spacecraft brings the rest of our solar system closer to us, so that we can more realistically consider living on or utilizing other worlds.
* Human spaceflight enables us to expand our presence and our field of action beyond the Earth. It changes the way we see our position in the cosmos, implying that we – and our prospects for the future — need not remain confined to our home planet.
* The search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence changes our perspective on the role of biology and sentience in the universe. Life may prove to be a widespread phenomenon, not unique to the Earth. Contact with another civilization might challenge us, or open up vast opportunities for our species.
* Proposals for extraterrestrial macroengineering , such as mining the Moon and the asteroids, building satellite solar power stations, and terraforming Mars, could enable us to expand our influence on matter and energy beyond the Earth, utilizing those resources to remove the limits to growth and open up new options for our species.
These revolutions broaden Earth-bound conceptions. They urge us to reach outward. They imply grand shared tasks for Humankind.
These revolutions also contrast us to an outside, heightening our awareness that we spring from a common origin and live in a common biosphere. They encourage us to think about the shared interests of humankind.
Astronomy, planetary exploration, and human spaceflight are not mutually exclusive. Work in one field has stimulated new ideas – and sometimes new programs and more funding – in others.
Astronomy has been a powerful stimulus to thinking about spaceflight. It has given us a better understanding of potential destinations, and potential risks.
This can work both ways. Astronomy and planetary exploration would not have enjoyed the growth they experienced during after the beginning of the space age had it not been for the Moon landing program and the prospect of eventual human missions to Mars.
We find stimulus and response elsewhere too. The search for extraterrestrial life has been a major factor in gaining support for planetary exploration missions to Mars. The possible presence of oceans under the ice of outer planet moons is stimulating new interest. SETI, a search for evidence of alien technology, grew out of radio astronomy.
Ideas about bases on the Moon and Mars became more credible after human and robotic missions gave us geological information about lunar and planetary materials. Extraterrestrial macroengineering concepts such as mining or diverting asteroids help justify further exploration of our solar system.
Discovering planets around other stars has given new impetus to astrobiology, SETI and interstellar exploration by robotic probes.
Those who support the implementation of these grand ideas have learned to play politics, to lobby for their causes in national capitals and multinational organizations. Their efforts have concentrated on budget processes, encouraging a near term approach. Political persuasion has focused on funding specific projects.
Instead of seeing the competition for funding as a zero-sum game, we could make a more conscious effort to see connections and seek synergisms. To cite one example, ground-based astronomers have been surveying asteroids that cross or come near the orbit of the Earth. Unmanned missions to asteroids and comet nuclei might pave the way for human exploration. Those in turn could assist in developing mining operations, making those bodies part of the human resource base.
If separate advocacies worked together, the whole might be greater than the sum of its parts. What is missing is a unifying concept.
A Grand Extraplanetary Strategy
All of these fields of human endeavor are parts of an unarticulated grand strategy for our species.
At the most basic level, a strategy is simply a thoughtful way of dealing with one’s environment to improve one’s prospects for success. A grand strategy for the human species would be one designed to improve our ability to survive, to grow, to diversify, and to increase our influence on our environment and our future.
There are many elements to such a strategy, including the better management of our resources, reducing undesirable impacts on our biosphere, limiting conflict among humans, and maintaining the conviction that our future can be better than our past. Most conceptions constrain the design of such a strategy to the biosphere of our origin – a stage that many find unnecessarily narrow. The environment of a technological species is much larger than the planetary biosphere that gave it birth.
Here we may have the common purpose that underlies the four outward-looking revolutions of our time. Astronomy, planetary exploration, and SETI are reconnaissances of our larger environment. They are essential elements of any rational extraplanetary strategy for the human species; without them, we could not conduct intelligent operations beyond the Earth.
Human spaceflight is partly for reconnaissance and partly for operations, depending on the objectives of particular missions. Extraterrestrial mining and macaroengineering, including the building of large structures in space, clearly would be operations.
Whatever our differences about specific missions may be, we could share a broad vision of human activity beyond the Earth, placing astronomy, planetary spaceflight, SETI, and proposals for extraterrestrial macroengineering in a common context.
Hard times can produce new alliances. Instead of seeing other programs as rivals for funding, we could look for opportunities for each to help the others, designing missions to be synergistic wherever that is possible. For example, advocates of interstellar exploration by probes could more actively support the search for extrasolar planets and invite extrasolar planet seekers to reciprocate.
This approach will not lead to quick miracles in public funding. Governments and international organizations are unlikely to adopt a formal extraplanetary strategy, or even to agree that we should have one. But they might respond to tactical alliances among the revolutionaries.
Many differences may divide us, but we can share a unifying idea: that we are participating in the definition and implementation of a grand strategy for our species.
Armed with a shared vision, we can work quietly and persistently to see that the parts of such a grand strategy are put into place, supporting each other whenever possible. That will require patience, and an enlightened sense of self-interest.
Separately, we have worked wonders. Imagine what we could do together.
This essay is based on three documents written more than thirty years ago. The author first presented a paper on this subject at the 1981 International Astronautical Congress in Rome. A more detailed discussion can be found in “Towards a Grand Strategy for the Species,” Earth-Oriented Applications of Space Technology, Vol. 2, No. 3-4 (1982), 213-219. A simpler, more popularized version entitled “Sharing the Grand Strategy” appeared in Space World, August 1984, 5-9.