In April of the year 1610, over 400 years ago, Johannes Kepler said in a letter to Galileo Galilei with reference to their respective studies of the moon and Jupiter:
… as soon as someone demonstrates the art of flying, settlers from our species of man will not be lacking. Who would once have thought that the crossing of the wide ocean was calmer and safer than of the narrow Adriatic Sea, Baltic Sea, or English Channel? Given ships or sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, there will be those who will not shrink from even that vast expanse (of space). Therefore, for the sake of those who, as it were, will presently be on hand to attempt this voyage, let us establish the astronomy, Galileo, you of Jupiter, and me of the moon.
Only a century after Christopher Columbus sailed into the mysterious unknown across the sea on his bold adventure that discovered the American continents for Western Civilization, Johannes Kepler, pioneering astronomer, envisioned a time that ships would be built to sail “that vast expanse” (of space) and hailed the men who would step forth to make the voyage. And he considered himself and Galileo to be among those who were directly involved in preparing for the journey, which, of course, they were.
A scant three centuries later, and in the midst of the time when feeble wooden sailing ships were just giving way to ships of steel and steam, humans took to the skies in winged craft. Then, less than seventy years after the first propeller-driven airplane made of sticks, wire, and cloth lofted a man above the ground in controlled, powered flight, the United States of America launched men in rockets on their first explorations across the void of space to the moon.
What is it within mankind that drives us to explore? And, perhaps most bewilderingly and more importantly, what is it within a man like Johannes Kepler — who lived at a time when mankind’s feet had never in the history of the world left the solid surface of the earth, and who was taking mankind’s first glimpses of far-off worlds through a simple telescope — what is it that made him able to even imagine that one day ordinary mortal human beings would be launching themselves into the void of space to actually walk on those distant worlds?
Kepler was under no delusion of such a journey being easy. It’s true that he was merely beginning to peer at the heavens through a primitive telescope of his own making (an improvement on one constructed by Galileo) but, in addition to being an astronomer, he was both mathematician and physicist. He had already calculated an actual approximation of the almost unimaginably vast distances to many of the objects in interplanetary and even interstellar space. And yet he was still able to make a statement so bold as to say with assurance that men would eventually set sail across the sky in ships to worlds that he could just barely see.
People have always been explorers. Or, rather, there have always been explorers and visionaries among us. And, as a result of our past explorations, we now live our ordinary lives in a world that is such a natural consequence of those explorations that most of us take humanity’s past accomplishments for granted. We don’t often stop to appreciate our history or the nature of those pioneers. But we should take a few moments to look back once in a while. It will help us in our ability to look forward.
Ever since our early ancestors left the branches of their local tree and started meandering off across the savannah on their own two feet, curiosity and adventure have been a vital part of humanity’s nature and heritage. And these traits do not just manifest in our propensity to wander vast distances away from our homes. They have driven us to explore deeply into all aspects of our physical universe. Exploration of everything – not just geography – is an inherent part of the mental and emotional aspects of our beings.
From the first time an individual figured out how to pick up a rock or a piece of old bone and use it against a predator or prey, there have been those among us who have used the power of their minds to advance our exploration of the world around us and thus our situation in life. Even the seemingly sedentary activity of farming required a huge revolution in thought and an exploration of new methods and tools to enhance our lives.
It’s easy for most of us to live out our lives not really appreciating how such a revolution starts. It starts by someone wondering if the grass is, in fact, greener on the other side of the hill, or by someone merely picking up such a thing as a rock and thinking to themselves, “What is this thing?” but doing it more deeply than most of us would imagine.
Many of us are content with the color of the grass on our own side of the hill. And, in the same way, we think the obvious thought that a rock is just a rock – or a leaf is a leaf, or a feather is a feather, or a drop of water is just kind of wet.
But that rock might contain an ore of iron or copper or lead. It might, once we understand it, be the basis for building a steel bridge, or a vast network of worldwide communication that those who first picked it up could not even imagine. The feather, once it and its fundamental principles are understood, might be the gateway to supersonic flight across the Atlantic Ocean. And that drop of water, once we learn how to take it apart and put it back together again in just the right way, might power a rocket ship to Mars. But nobody knows any of those things the first time they see the ordinary object laying on the ground.
Think about that for a moment.
How far have we come as a society in understanding the universe?
What is the power of the human mind?
Let’s consider just one example:
Our ancestors, when they saw the sun, could only gaze up and wonder to themselves, “What is that bright globe in the sky that gives light and life to the entire earth? Where does its light come from?” They made up stories about it. Some of them considered that it must be one of the gods. But I imagine most people just looked back down to their work and kept toiling in the soil for their next meal. After all, that’s what most of us do even today.
But now, after centuries of searching and inquiry, we actually know what that glowing globe up in the sky is and we know how it works. We no longer have to merely believe or guess or rely on the explanations of the superstitions and magic of our ancestors. We know what it is because, we have, in just this last century, become so familiar with the principle of its operation that we can actually make one of those things.
The ones we can make so far only last for a fraction of a second because we lack both the vast resources and the power and control to maintain its heat and compression for very long in our earthly environment. But we can, in fact, make one. And it works. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t know at a very fundamental level how the building blocks of matter and energy function.
One day, when we figure out just a little more about it, we may be able to make it power our civilization for the next billion years. Or our descendants might use that power to take themselves beyond our solar system and to the stars.
Now, let’s consider: What drives this exploration? I mean on a practical level, what are the real driving forces behind our advancement? The couch philosophers among us sometimes gaze in admiration at our past advancements, marvel at the capacity of the human mind, and leave it at that. But this question itself is worthy of further exploration because it has a lot to do not only with where we stand technologically today, but how we should shape our society to optimize our way forward.
The primary element is the individual human mind.
The curiosity and combined abilities of the individual human mind are the obvious central key elements. Our ability to look critically at an object or a problem and to mentally break it down into its component pieces and then to abstract from our analysis theories about how it works or solutions to its difficulties is the greatest trait of our human mind. Some people are naturally better at this than others. But we all have the ability to a greater or lesser extent. And much of this ability and its related processes can be learned.
That last part is a major issue in our society: In general, our schools and the entire environment in which we live, and especially the environment in which our young people grow up, are not structured very well at all for learning critical thinking skills.
Too often, the classrooms of our schools tend to be places where education standards force teachers to attempt to dump a sufficient amount of standardized information into their students’ brains for them to pass standardized tests. And the algorithms of our social media platforms and other advertising media funnel our minds and social contacts more and more every day into echo chambers of our own preconceived ideas and all too often vapid entertainment choices.
In extreme cases, people who claim to be “free thinkers” have merely found a new, alternative, “anti-establishment” guru whose message makes them feel so good about having thoughts counter to the “mainstream” that they follow their new leader without even thinking to question either the message or its source. They become, in effect, no better than anyone else who believes what they are told to believe by their favorite information channel. This is how we get not only “flat earth” promoters and their believers / followers but all sorts of ideas in our social realm about “men” or “women” or this or that “race” or religion or “cultural appropriation” or whatever that are really just new prejudices that are merely claiming to overcome old prejudices.
People need to engage their own minds, learn to think critically, challenge the status quo, and question even (and especially) those ideas that seem comfortable to them. But they need to do it rationally, without a purely iconoclastic attitude that wants to smash every traditional idea just because it’s traditional.
And that brings us to the next driving force behind our accomplishments:
We are where we are because of our history.
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.Isaac Newton, 1675 in a letter to Robert Hooke.
Failure to recognize the truth that Newton spoke of in the above quote comes in a number of flavors in our modern world:
The first and most egregious failure is the tendency among some people, often, unfortunately, in our institutions of supposed “higher learning,” to look down in haughty derision upon those people in our past who have driven our civilization’s accomplishments. They look back upon a history of conflict, oppression, prejudice, and superstition, pointing out, for example, that even Isaac Newton himself was a dabbler in the false science of alchemy, and thus they find excuses to dismiss the greatness of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. The only reason such people don’t slander the name of our earliest ancestor who picked up an old bone or a rock, and thus invented for us the use of tools, for using that tool against an enemy or to kill some poor prey is that the fortunate creature doesn’t have his (or her) name written down in our history books.
Such belittling of great steps in the evolution of our civilization is itself nothing but ignorant arrogance.
Yes, our history is filled with oppression and tyranny and with stories of hoards of Babylonians or Huns or Britons or Romans or even Mongols or Aztecs swooping down upon their neighbors in battles of conquest. It is true that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, that Newton played in alchemy and that Edison was more of a businessman than a brilliant inventor. But they also created farming, built cities to live in, organized our society, wrote our first laws, and provided the technology that enabled us to make our lives better – and even to criticize ourselves.
The ultimate hypocrisy in our modern world is something I saw a few years ago in an event that should be turned into a meme in which someone published a scathing criticism of Steve Jobs, even to the point of dismissing the greatness of his accomplishments, because he was a bit of an ass – in a tweet that they had written on their iPhone.
We shouldn’t worship our past innovators. But neither should we dismiss the greatness of what they accomplished just because of the context of the history in which it was done. Social evolution is necessarily slow. It always will be slow because people don’t like to change. And we need to recognize this and acknowledge the good along with the bad.
Another failure to recognize our historical accomplishments comes in a form that I am tempted to not even mention because it seems so ridiculous to anyone who actually understands technology. But for some reason it seems to have become popular in certain corners of our social media to the point that it cannot really be ignored. The form it takes is disbelief – disbelief that we have actually accomplished some of the things that we have, in fact, accomplished. Some people look at the technological explosion of the 20th century and say, “aliens from outer space must have given us all of that” or perhaps that we must have “reverse engineered” it (a favorite pop-pseudo-science term) from a crashed alien space ship. Others claim that “NASA didn’t really go to the moon” or other such nonsense.
The sad part is that people like this claim to be “independent thinkers.” They claim that they are using their “critical thinking skills” when the truth of the matter is that they are either merely believing what they are told to believe by some self-proclaimed social guru or are completely misunderstanding what they are looking at without even attempting to figure out how basic elements of nature and technology actually function.
But the most dangerous, because it is the most pervasive, failure to recognize our historical accomplishments comes from the just plain ignorance of apathy. Did you – yes, you, the reader here – did you pay attention in history class in high school? Alternatively, did your history teachers even attempt to make history interesting? Or was it just memorization of a huge pile of names and dates? Do you even know enough to know what to question if you wanted to question our past?
We don’t know how many instances they edit out when they do it, but a common video phenomenon over the past few decades has been to interview people on the street about basic historical information. And the result is only somewhat humorous because it is so sad. Many people, it seems, are not even familiar with basic elements of our history or even of our current events and the basic functionality of our technology.
Why is it important?
It’s important for the same reason that knowing what color Brittany Spears (or whoever) painted their toenails or who saw who kissing who last Saturday is not important. We – all of us – should have some perspective on how our civilization got to where we are instead of just filling our brains with the latest vapid social media posts.
We should have some perspective so we can appreciate where we are, and so that we can consider where we want to (and can) go in the future.
And lastly, let’s look at the question of:
What are the specific causes that drive each of our major explorations?
Curiosity is important. Our history is important. And individual effort can result in such things as Newton’s formulas of gravitation for his falling apple, Kepler’s measurement of the stars and planets with his telescope, and even the Wright Brothers’ creation of their first airplane out of sticks and cloth and motorcycle parts. But two guys working in a bicycle shop don’t create a supersonic jet or an airplane industry. And peering through telescopes and writing out formulas for gravity don’t, by themselves, enable anyone to actually explore the moon.
Our biggest explorations and accomplishments require more than that. They require a major effort in terms of expenditure of resources and planning and logistics – either, historically, by governments, or, more recently, by other cooperative efforts between people in large corporations. And so, to do great things in the future, we should understand what reasons societies have for pooling resources and taking on great tasks.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson succinctly, and I think accurately, outlined three distinct kinds of driving forces that have historically been behind the largest and most expensive expenditures of capital for a culture’s explorations and accomplishments:
One historical driving force on his list is the worship of gods and/or the proclamation of grandeur for a society and its kings and emperors through the creation of impressive monuments. This force gets a society to do such things as erect the Parthenon of Greece or the Pyramids of Egypt or the many cathedrals of Europe or temples of the Far East.
Notably for today’s world, this force was, in the minds of many people, a main reason behind NASA’s project to go and explore the moon. And the demonstration of technological prowess for its own sake still seems to be a major force behind similar efforts in China, Russia, India and Japan in their space flight programs. But religious feelings and the exaltation of emperors or even society at large are diminishing as reasons for governments to expend vast resources in our modern world, and these more recent accomplishments also have other reasons behind them:
Another driving force behind a society expending vast resources is, in effect, the fear of dying. This was the real, main reason behind the Apollo program and the “race” to the moon. The Soviet Union had shown that it could heft into orbit and over our heads an object that was the appropriate size to carry a nuclear warhead. So the United States felt the need to develop and demonstrate the ability to do the same but on a much more massive scale.
This was also the reason for governmental expenditures to develop jet engines and large airplanes during World War II, technology that was later used for commercial airliners. And it was, of course, the driving force behind the massive expenditures that created the first use of nuclear power.
It continued to be a driving force for fundamental research into physical science for longer than some people realize – long after the initial creation and even the maturity of our nuclear weapons development. How many people noticed that the United States had an atomic particle accelerator project that was being built in Texas that was more than twice the power of the famous Large Hadron Collider on the border between France and Switzerland in Europe? And did you happen to notice that the project got canceled right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Yes, fundamental scientific research gets Congressional funding especially if it’s part of an arms race.
The third and final and most important driving force on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s list is commercial profitability.
As Tyson points out, individuals and companies have limited resources. If projects are not going to be profitable – or at least not lose a significant amount – in the relatively short term of at most a few years, they cannot be considered as viable goals. Therefore, governments have often considered it to be within their purview to do the initial investing in exploration, fundamental research and development of infrastructure – but only if it was expected to serve the long term prosperity of the society through commercialization at some time in the future.
This was the case with the funding of the initial voyages of discovery from Europe around Africa to Asia and across the Atlantic to the American continents. Massive explorations were funded by governments in these cases because the commercial viability seemed likely at some point in the future, but was not sufficiently certain for merchants to take on the task.
Other examples are on your desk or in your lap as you read this. Such seemingly mundane and common things as the laser on your computer mouse (or that your doctor uses for eye surgery) and the processor for the computer itself, are the result of long chains of theory, testing, and expensive exploratory research into fundamental science in which the explorers at each step in the process have no clue what practical applications there may be for what they are doing. (Fun fact: Did you know that, in order to even get the idea to create such a thing as a laser, you first need to invent, test, and confirm the theory of quantum mechanics of Einstein and other such theoretical thinkers?) Such fundamental research is often done either with government funding or by huge corporations who can afford to spend resources exploring properties of nature for which the economic payback is uncertain and potentially nonexistent.
So, what does this mean to us as we sit and contemplate the potential future explorations of mankind?
It means that, for many of our greatest (and most expensive) explorations and discoveries yet to come, in addition to our natural human curiosity and application of our intellect, and except for those cases where societies deem it appropriate to create monuments to themselves or to their idols, there must be at least one of two specific practical results foreseeable as a result of the exploration: It must protect us from the threat of a great cataclysm. Or it must be economically profitable in order to be worth spending resources on.
Devotees of Star Trek or the space fantasies of Arthur C. Clark might have romantic notions of flying across the galaxy in huge ships, exploring the stars for exploration’s sake. But that’s not the way it works. Major explorations are expensive. And they must be paid for.
So, we have a choice:
Primarily, the choice that is up to each of us as citizens is: What role do we expect and what role do we want the government to take in all of this?
The governments of the United States and other countries have taken the lead in the past where huge expenditures were needed for expensive collaborative efforts in exploration and research. But how much of this do we want? Notice several important facts of history:
The government is horrendously inefficient.
For example, the Space Shuttle was an amazing technological achievement. But it was also a horrendous failure from the very beginning. Yes, we lost two shuttles and those events were tragedies. But the entire program was a gross failure on a fundamental level because it was supposed to be a cheap, reusable delivery truck to orbit, and it never was. It was supposed to enable the United States to put a space station in orbit in the 1980s. It didn’t. It wasted nearly thirty years worth of NASA’s manned space flight effort and huge sums of the taxpayer’s money doing what other systems could easily have done much more efficiently. It cost nearly a billion dollars for every launch and it was decades behind an already operational system that cost the same and had a vastly larger capacity.
The Congressional, designed-by-committee boondoggle that was the Space Shuttle set our space exploration on a course that kept us literally going in circles and accomplishing next to nothing for decades. It prevented vastly more exploration than it ever enabled.
Certainly NASA has a very important role to play in space exploration. They are exceptionally good at coordinating projects to make satellites, planetary rovers and deep space probes to launch off to distant and exotic places in the solar system. But for a large portion of its budget – primarily that portion that has to do with boosters for manned exploration – NASA is more of a Congressional jobs program than a space exploration agency.
And consider this: When the government has been in the lead in exploration and research and development on huge projects, the main first benefactor has always been the military. This is just as true for the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb in the 1940s as it was for Columbus and the Spanish government 450 years earlier.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. We need a military and the military needs technological research.
But it is definitely something to be cautious of.
Remember, the government that gave us space flight, jet engines, and the internet is the same government that experimented on U.S. Army soldiers in the radiation of atomic bomb tests and on others in various chemical and biological experiments in laboratories without their consent or even their knowledge. And the government that sent men to the moon inside of a single decade is the same government that spent vast sums of money throughout the next 50 years of manned space flight doing nothing but spinning around in circles in low orbit around the Earth.
So we may need the government to fund certain kinds of research and exploration, but an intelligent public should be very watchful and put sever limits on how much the government is allowed to do – and to spend – in any of these realms of activity.
Recently, a new era of massive private sector research and development and exploration has started.
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and a host of others have begun their own spaceflight ventures primarily with private capital funding, and often largely out of their own pockets. Bill Gates has put some of his wealth into nuclear energy research. Elon Musk has also started a company to research artificial intelligence. And Ray Kurzweil is researching combinations of AI, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and human life extension.
The activities of these people are made possible by the fact that our capitalistic system tends to accumulate wealth into the hands of the most adventurous and successful people and companies. And, with limited resources, the inability to bilk (tax) the public for all the money needed to cover the next project, and a profit motive in mind, each of these efforts is subject to scrutiny that favors both efficiency and actual results.
If we were to trust such activities solely to the government, we can be sure that, even if they were not confined to the back rooms of some secret laboratory somewhere and reserved solely for use of the military, as we see in our favorite conspiracy stories (and has actually happened occasionally in reality) it would be subject to the horrendous inefficiencies that we can see plainly in even the most public of governmental programs.
Where will all of these things lead us? — At the moment, we can only guess.
Eventually, we can go to the stars and do many of the things that the dreamers among humanity dream of doing.
But how we structure our society has a lot to do with whether we will make it. And it certainly will dictate what route we take.