THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
By doubting we come to inquiry;
and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is easily mistaken for arrogance.
TO BOLDLY GO
Of all the cultural artifacts bequeathed by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, none is more inspirational than Capt. Kirk's credit-sequence voice-over for the original series. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" sums up an optimistic vision of humanity's innate need to explore.
So attractive was Roddenberry's dream that NASA named the prototype of the space shuttle "Enterprise," after Kirk's starship. OV-101 never made it into space, but the real character of the on-again, off-again shuttle program was writ large this past week as the Discovery performed its duties in orbit.
What were those duties? Exploration of the cosmos? Nope. Scientific experiments? Wrong again. Orbital insertion of a deep-space telescope? Hardly. Astronomer Henry Joy McCracken conveys the sense of disappointment that so many NASA observers, and Trek fans, share:
Thinking as a voyager and explorer, this mission is going nowhere: it is yet another grocery-delivery trip to the International Space Station (and of course the rubbish and laundry also has to be collected for the return...). Thinking about the project as an astronomer is even more painful: the cost of just one of these shuttle missions would fund half a dozen extremely productive science satellites. (Spiked, Aug. 3)
Making matters worse, the space station has even less reason to exist; having been scaled back to accommodate shrinking budgets so often that maintaining the structure is a full-time job for its entire complement of astro/cosmonauts. Science isn't just in the back seat, it's in the trunk -- if it even made it aboard.
And yet, President George Bush wants to go back to the Moon and on to Mars.
This is where the hard reality of space travel collides with Roddenberry's vision. Going to Mars will be really, really, really expensive, on the order of a $500 billion to $1 trillion. Lower estimates abound, but when we consider that it took $1 billion to get the shuttle program flying after the Columbia disaster -- and the foam still won't stay on the fuel tank -- a trillion begins to look realistic. Think of what that kind of money could accomplish back down on Earth. Hey, what do you say we eliminate world poverty this election cycle?
Just putting people in Earth orbit is so expensive, in fact, that the cost of robotic missions to Mars or Saturn is a are comparative bargains at only a few hundred million each.
The logical course of action, as Spock might conclude, is that we should stick to robots, and leave human space flight for a future when we've solved all pressing social and environmental concerns down here.
The question is, can what's called "telepresence" satisfy the yearning to explore that Roddenberry (and JFK) so ably exploited back in the 1960s? We will be happy to let machines get all the glory?
Recent coverage of the Discovery's problematic mission suggests we are growing weary of high-risk grocery-and-garbage runs to and from orbit.
"Return of the Shuttle Brings Doubts and Anxiety" says the New York Times over a story that claims "a generation of Americans that has lived through two shuttle disasters is growing edgy" (Aug. 7).
At the same time, the popularity of the Star Trek franchise and its imitators shows no sign of abating. Yes, the latest series, Enterprise, was cancelled after just four seasons. But consider that while the 3 million viewers it was drawing in its final season weren't enough for a "network" program, comparable audience figures more than justified renewal of the wildly popular, critically acclaimed Battlestar Galactica over on cable's SciFi Channel.
Consider also that scientific enthusiasm for Spirit, Opportunity et al., does not necessarily translate into popular support.
I suspect that most of us will not be satisfied with robotic space missions. We want to see real people out there, risking everything to prove we still have whatever it is we used to have when ancient mariners disregarded the "Here Be Dragons" warnings. According to this world view, it's just something we have to do. Roddenberry explained it often by having his 23rd- and 24th-century Starfleet officers define themselves first and foremost as explorers.
But tomorrow's decision-makers may not share that "spirit" for risk and glory. Raised in a virtual environment of instant messaging and internet-mediated role-playing computer games, today's youth may more easily embrace the cold Vulcan logic of letting artificial intelligence explore the strange new worlds or seek out new life and new civilizations.
Would that be a sad development, or a welcome one? I'm not sure, and I'd be suspicious of anyone who is. All I know for certain is that it's an important question. First, it goes to the heart of the human condition, and second, an awful lot of money is involved.