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The Other Interrogatives

For all the abuse I heaped on him back in September for his “Wild West on Mars” comments, astronomer Martin Rees actually gets it, I suspect. In this article in Foreign Policy, he speculates on who should be the “mans” in a manned space program, what they should be doing, and why. Though he inevitably plugs robots over humans, he does see a place for humans in space, but in the forms of private adventures and tourism rather than multilateral leviathans sucking at the government teat while claiming to do science for science’s sake (okay, maybe I overstate his position, but you get the point).

Should China succeed at a lunar landing, it would be a leap forward for the Chinese people, but nothing more than a throwback as manned space flight goes. Multilateral efforts, symbolized by the International Space Station, have perhaps also had their day (in no small part because of bureaucratic inertia; exploration by committee can be a drag on progress). The kind of vibrant program I wish to see, taking us to the moon and beyond?with Mars the ultimate destination?will require two big changes: The cost of space travel must decrease, and travelers should venture into space on behalf of themselves or private consortia, rather than nations.

(emphasis added) Wow. And just ten months ago, he was worried about the “Wild West model” prevailing on Mars. I’m starting to think that that earlier article didn’t adequately represent Mr. Rees’ views.

My prototype for a future astronaut is neither a civilian NASA employee nor a military test pilot, but someone in the mold of Steve Fossett, the wealthy serial adventurer who, after several expensive failures, finally managed a solo round-the-world balloon flight in 2002. Fossett obviously craves dangerous challenges?he is now attempting to beat the altitude record for gliders?and is willing to risk his life in pursuit of adventure. As temperament goes, he clearly has the right stuff. And as affiliation goes, he also has the right stuff. Paying his own way, he doesn?t represent a nation; he represents humanity.

Or, let the “gentlemen adventurers” push the boundaries, and let the tourists follow them.

Another great observation, in line with my own thinking on the subject:

When nations send people to space, space disasters become national traumas?and nations lose some of their will to explore. By contrast, were a private adventurer like Fossett to come to a sad end in space, we would mourn a brave and resourceful man, but his death would not be considered a catastrophe on the scale of the Columbia or Challenger accidents. Nor would it provoke nearly as much hand-wringing. It would be seen for what it was: a personal tragedy. To reach Mars and points beyond will require a certain ruthlessness of spirit, and swashbuckling individuals possess this quality much more than civilized nations do.

Of course, he does conclude by expressing the same mixture of hope and concern that he did in the earlier article:

Still, while I am optimistic about the ability of private enterprise to colonize the moon and lead us to Mars, I am less sanguine about what space pioneers will do once they establish a presence there. Will they be as scrupulous in preserving the natural environment as, say, the governments involved in the Antarctic project have been? Or will they simply exploit the planets they conquer, much as was done to the American West? Ultimately, how we get there is less important than what we do when we arrive.

Which sounds like a reasonable (if somewhat overblown) concern, rather than the handwringing worry that came through in the previous article.

I think this guy is on our side.

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