To Infinity…Or Maybe Not!

I’ve found that what I want to write about is predicated heavily by random confluences of events. I’ll have some thought come at me or present itself in multiple ways during a short period of time. It’ll get into my head and I’ll be compelled to write a post about it. For instance, most of my posts about theatre can be traced back to an experience with a couple clueless theatre patrons and a conversation about a week later with a few other theatrical technicians.

Recently, I’ve come across space travel a few times. The Doctor Who season premiere featured the Moon Landing in a particularly awesome and inspiring (to me, at least) way. Xkcd had a comic graphing the declining population of otherworldly travelers. And as I was idly re-watching old videos on The Escapist, I came across an episode of The Big Picture where Movie Bob laments the death of the space shuttle and the apparent death of caring about going into space.

All this got me thinking, how do we go from this:

“Do you know how many people are watching this live on the telly? Half a billion. And that’s nothing, because the human race will spread out among the stars—you just watch them fly. Billions and billions of them, for billions and billions of years. And every single one of them at some point in their lives will look back at this man taking that very first step and they will never ever forget it.”
The Doctor, about the Moon Landing, Day of the Moon

To this:

“The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”
-XKCD alt text, May 2, 2011

Because things do seem to be grinding to a halt. It took just under 12 years to go from the first orbital launch, to a man on the Moon.

Not that one

We haven’t really gone anywhere since. “Gone” as in “packed some guys up and headed out.” We’ve looked around through telescopes, and sent robots out, but the people are staying close to home. No man has been on the Moon since December 14, 1972. We’ve confined ourselves to orbital trips to space stations since then. And even that seems to be in decline with the space shuttle going out of service soon. And there’s no replacement lined up. After a rise that was (literally and figuratively) meteoric, extraterrestrial travel is coming back down to Earth.

Of course, it’s hard to support an expensive trek to the Moon or beyond when the US and the world at large is still suffering from the effects of the recent recession. If this was a recent trend, I’d be less surprised at it. But it seems like people stopped caring about getting people out into space almost as soon as we were able to get them out there. Two flights after landing on the moon, television networks didn’t even bother to broadcast recordings from the crew until it looked like they weren’t getting home. The last 3 Apollo missions wound up being canceled due to budget cuts.

And no one really cares. There didn’t seem to be any great outcry about the Apollo cancellations, and the space shuttle being retired barely makes the news. Even popular culture cares less about space exploration. In the 60s and 70s, there were all kinds of movies and tv shows about mankind going into space. Many of them were crap, but people were still thinking about it. With the exception of Star Trek, I’d be hard pressed to come up with enough examples of this in the last ten years to count on two hands.

Science fiction as a genre seems to want to deal more with zombies and technologically created monsters than with humans out in space. Even movies about aliens don’t have us going out into space anymore. They come here to us.

What do these three movies have in common?

We don’t dream about going out into the stars anymore? To someone who thought for a long time that he was going to be an astronaut when he grew up, this really seems like a bizarre thing. Not long after running into all the things I mentioned at the top of this post, I started thinking about this a lot. Why would people stop wanting to go out into space? Yeah, it’s difficult and expensive, but too many people have talked about our destiny being in the stars to toss it off to such mundane concerns.

After a great deal of thought, I think I have the answer (or at least, an answer):

We’re scared.

Yes, I’m calling the human race (mostly America, but the general Earthly population gets some of this too) chicken.

We’re scared. Not of the dangers of space, or the possible murderous aliens that may be out there, but of all the aliens we don’t think are out there anymore. We’ve had more than 50 years of searching the skies with high-powered radio telescopes and other technology. We’ve been listening for the possibility of other peoples and civilizations sending out broadcasts of our own and have heard nothing. And we’re giving up. We’re worried about the possibility that we’re really alone in the universe and don’t want to head out there to find out for sure.

And that sucks. Yes, the idea of a huge impersonal universe with no intelligent life beyond one planet orbiting one star on an unremarkable arm of one spiral galaxy is overwhelming to the point of immobility. Yes, it’s hard to drum up excitement or courage to head out to what may very well be dead rock after dead rock. But so what? If there isn’t life elsewhere in the universe, that just makes it up to us to spread it there. Even without anyone else out there to start with, we can create a legacy that could last forever.

But we’re not going to do anything about it if we just sit here at home arranging the furniture.

I don’t know how we get around this, but we really need to. Even if there’s no one else out there, we owe it to ourselves to see.

Posted on May 9, 2011, in Science!, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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