I romanticize space quite a lot here and in real life as well. The sheer scale of our universe is something that is so mind boggling that I simply have no choice but it stand in awe of it constantly, lest I become overwhelmed with the sheer insignificance of my life when compared to it. Still even with my helplessly deluded romantic view I still recognise that the universe is one harsh mistress and humanity’s entire existence is just a tiny blip on the greater timeline of the universe.
Knowing this one of my close friends proposed a question to me last night which he had seen on a craigslist ad some time ago. Whilst the ad has unfortunately been taken down there are still a couple news articles around to give you the general idea of the question:
Just look at the first, enticing sentence of the ad: “Astronaut needed for experimental flight to Titan.”
Perhaps you might be concerned that this ad was not, in fact, placed by NASA. Please, let me put your mind into horizontal mode. The advertiser assures all applicants that he has been “working on this project for near 40 years.” Indeed, the only reason he is seeking an Armstrong for his flight is that he himself seems to have weaker limbs now that the years have passed.
In the advertiser’s own persuasive and humane words: “I am certain you will make it safely to Titan but there will not be enough fuel to get home. This is for someone unique that has always wanted to see the universe first-hand and has perhaps a terminal view on life here at home. Here’s your shot at romantic history.”
For a moment suspend the notion that this is just some crackpot putting up a free ad on the Internet to get some lulz and take a step back to analyze the question. Would you, given the opportunity, be willing to travel further than any other human has before into some of the deepest reaches of the solar system and cement your place firmly in the history books at the cost of never coming back? It’s an intriguing notion and one that I initially struggled to find an appropriate answer for.
Then it dawned on me. Such an adventure is not noble nor romantic. It is, above all, a completely selfish endeavour.
The idea of long term space travel is one of those things that gets me all excited about all the possibility that such a thing would bring. Colonies on other worlds, telescopes showing completely different views of the universe and one day the hopes of finding another form of intelligent life. We’re quite capable of keeping people up in orbit for months at a time currently but we haven’t been able to send people off on their lonesome for more than a couple weeks. The question gives you the impression that not only is his propulsion system highly advanced but so is the life support systems to. It takes about 3 years to get to Titan and that’s a problem that even NASA is struggling to find solutions for.
However despite the improbability of an actual solution to a lot of engineering problems you have to question the reason for sending a single human to a far off world without the possibility of them ever coming back. We could argue at lenght that there’s an enormous amount of science that could be done and there would be nothing more inspiring than another human actually visiting another world. But in reality the scientific achievements could be done much easier by robotic spacecraft so the value a human provides there is completely moot. The point was made that the moon landings grabbed the attention of the entire world at the moment we touched down and that such an endeavour to Titan would do the same.
It wouldn’t though. Had we not made it possible for the Apollo astronauts to return we would have scarred the moon forevermore as the place where we sent some of our best and brightest to die merely for the point of placing a flag. The same can be said for sending someone on a one way trip to Titan and I know that the world couldn’t be inspired by a man they sent away just to die alone on another world.
I believe that humanity must expand beyond our mother planet not only because of our innate desire to explore but also to protect ourselves as a species. There is so much to learn from leaving our home world that just can’t be done any other way that ignoring space feels tantamount to condemning ourselves to an eternal prison of this gravity well. Whilst the first to pioneer the frontiers of other planets will always be celebrated sending them to their graves becomes a purely selfish endeavour for all those involved. We can not conquer the challenges the universe puts in front of us by planting flags or being first at something. We conquer them by overcoming all the challenges, including the one of coming back home.
This is a wholly different idea from that of trying to accomplish something, say summiting mount Everest, which could end up with one losing their life. Such endeavours form the core of the human spirit, undertaking a challenge to push the limits of what was thought possible. I make the argument that all of those who attempted such journeys always had the intention of coming back down as I know of no one who has undertaken such missions just to die once they reached their destination.
So in the end I decided that no, I wouldn’t take the trip. Sacrificing my life, or anyone elses, just for the sake of putting my name in the history books is not worth the price of admission. Additionally such an endeavour achieves nothing for the greater cause of humanity and only serves to mar the destination with the death of a person who’s only ambition was to be remembered after they died. Whilst that is a hope that we all carry there is little value in throwing your life away in such an endeavour and I will never celebrate those condemn themselves to such fates.