The Infinite Horizon of Discovery

In the ages of old, people thought that if you kept going out into the Atlantic Ocean, you would eventually fall off the edge of the Earth. Indeed, there were also tales of monsters that lurked there, waiting to snatch the sailor and his ship and drag them down into the abyss below. Well, there were monsters and the waters were dangerous, but they were surmountable once the sufficient technology came to fruition.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail on the first of several trips in search for the West passage to India and in his journeys he discovered the “New World”. But before this attempt was made, many had first embarked on exploration of the islands which meander the West coast of Africa and in particular the Canary Islands. These “precursor missions” allowed the gradual development of core capabilities, technologies, experience and most important, confidence. So that the Atlantic could be tackled and the new horizon breached.

When I consider the history of human kind, a species which grew by a process of gradual migration out of Africa, it is awe inspiring to think how far we have come. Think of the countless toils and struggles of those that would walk for miles across vast lands, searching for water, food and places to shelter or settle. Think of the risks they took as they entered territories with dangerous never before seen animals and even hostile humans who would rob them of all they own and cherish, including their lives. Think of the hard labours fault in the battle to master agricultural techniques, to grow crops so that we might weather the harsh seasons and feed the growing population. Think of how we survived as we crossed deserts, jungles, ice sheets, and barren landscapes, freezing in the cold night of the Moon, and baking in the hot rays of the Sun. Yet, we endured.

We are an explorer species. We search for the next mountain to climb, the next ocean to dive. This exploration extends not just to the physical world but also to the world of our minds as we intellectualise our reality and with curiosity seek answers to explain all that we observe. This constant questioning, this endless frontier is fundamental to who we are. The exploration of space is a natural extension of these propensities and it is in our deepest desires to go out there; this driving force cannot be stopped, because the exploration of space is the purest expression of our personal and joint liberty.

So we breached the Karman line of space, circled the equatorial and polar orbits, hopped from the world of our origin to our closest neighbour, the Moon. The planet Mars calls us loudly and beckons us to come and explore it too. Look at it through a telescope, its rustic coloured appearance with polar ice caps of its own. Those mountains and valleys yet to be explored; Olympus Mons three times the height of Everest. How can we not try?

The other worlds call us too. The Jovian worlds and its possible swimming life, bathing in the ash ridden atmospheres of volcanic and ice covered worlds. Saturn and its ring of icy jewels. Titan with its ocean of liquid Methane. They call us, like the metaphorical Gjallarhorn across the solar system – come explore us and see what nature left here. Pluto is next, then the Oort cloud and beyond. Our precursor missions will extend to the furthest frontiers to prepare the way for our eventual arrival. Then it’s the stars and the entire cycle of planetary exploration begins all over again, until the next system and then the next, billions of them until the galaxy is fully explored by some future descendants of human kind. But our galaxy is but one within a large supercluster, and there are millions of these. Where does it end? Even when we have explored the entire Universe, will we discover the Universe too is but one of billions created by the architect of nature? Perhaps, it is as the philosopher Olaf Stapledon depicted in his 1937 book “Star Maker”, and our Universe is but one in the great laboratory of Multiverses, as the Star Maker perfects his or her art.

How marvellous that we can see so far and so much? How splendid that nature has arranged it so that when we look at the sky we see back in time, back to the beginning of the Cosmos itself? Perhaps the purpose of the Universe is as the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke said, “For the perpetual astonishment of mankind”? It is exhilarating a thing to be on the path of discovery, but it is also joyous to think that we are always at the beginning with the ocean of knowledge all before us. Our limited life span is so short in the age of the Cosmos. If we are lucky we will live for eighty or even one hundred years. Use that time wisely, make time for moments of discovery and contemplation, learn what you can whilst you are here, because what is your horizon of discovery today, will be someone else’s history in the future. The light cone goes on, the entropy grows, the clock ticks in synchronicity to the arrow of time. Be a part of the contribution to knowledge whilst you can - for we will not be here forever, but the infinite horizon of discovery will be. Eyes, ears and mind open.

How many more years I shall be able to work on the problem I do not know; I hope, as long as I live. There can be no thought of finishing, for 'aiming at the stars' both literally and figuratively, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.” Robert H. Goddard, in a 1932 letter to H. G. Wells.



The Starship: Bringer of Harmony

Williams K Hartmann is an American space artist. In 1984 he wrote a book titled “Out of the Cradle, Exploring the Frontiers Beyond Earth”. In this book he proposed something which is quite profound and which had become known as the Golden Rule. It states that “Space exploration must be carried out in a way so as to reduce, not aggravate, tensions in human society”. The Starship has the potential to do just that.

Firstly, the manufacture, construction and assembly of a Starship is an enormous undertaking which is likely to require the capabilities of people and organizations from across the globe. Any sensible cost estimates for a Starship program will usually be in the trillions of dollars, so with the 2012 Gross World Product of the entire planet being in the region of $80 trillion, the Starship economics begin to become tractable if done on an international basis. The implication here is that the construction of a Starship will likely require human co-operation on a global scale not seen before. The nearest we have to this model is the International Space Station (ISS), a structure that is 450 tonnes in mass and has cost approximately $150 billion. But it has involved not just the United States, but also the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, Russia and many other countries. The ISS stands out as a superb achievement in human co-operation as a large scale construction project and it is on the critical path to Starship construction. And by the way, I prefer the original name, “Space Station Freedom”.

Second, as we move away from the planet Earth and visit other worlds, we will look back upon that pale blue dot and learn to treasure it more. Over the 3.5 billion years of history of life on Earth, humans have risen to the top of the food chain, due to our apparent intelligence (although frequently one wonders). But there is a down side to our ascension, which is that all of the other animals on the planet are forced to compete with us for resources and land, as we embark on the conquest of the natural world without due consideration for the consequence of our actions. The Amazon rainforest for example is disappearing at a rate of something like 600 square km per month, mainly due to deforestation by human settlement and land development. Yet, we continue to consume, we continue to not strive to live within our means. We always want more. As the dominant species on the planet Earth we have a duty to be the moral caretakers of Gaia – the only world we have ever known. That is the responsibility of those who would choose to rule. If we do not learn to take our responsibilities seriously, what hope then is there for the new worlds we aspire to colonise? As we learn to design and build Starships, we must also learn to change our ways because the Starship and current man are not compatible; we must adapt our nature, to nature.

A third element that the Starship brings is universal freedom to expand. With our population on Earth growing at an average rate of something like 2% per annum, we will be at 10 billion people by around the year 2050. Clearly, humans have a need to explore and expand but with the limited resources of the Earth this is not sustainable. The Starship brings with it the opportunity to expand at will in all directions to anywhere, utilizing the abundance resources of space appropriately as we move from one world to the next. The Starship is our vehicle of universal liberty.

Forth, we still have many problems on the planet Earth. I have already mentioned over population, but what of starvation, disease, conflicts, poor resource distribution, and energy sources? Science and technology has the potential to solve all of these problems given sufficient time and support. As we strive to invent new propulsion systems, power systems and other technologies, this brings with it as yet not-conceived technological spin-offs which will have the capacity to change and improve the human condition.

Sixth, let us understand the implications to human culture as we pursue the mission of the Starship. This brings with it an informed and educated population as we need more engineers, scientists, biologists and other specialists. Many will be inspired by what is achieved by the Starships and will seek similar careers producing a scientifically informed population which has to filter back up to the political system. This will naturally lead to improvements in how decisions are made, based upon data, rather than emotional trends in popular society.

Finally, and relating to culture, is learning to live with each other’s differences, no matter what the colour of our skin, our sexual orientation, gender or philosophical outlook. The 1960s saw the peak of the civil rights movement in America, a period where people simply desired to be seen as equals and rightly so. We have made great progress since those dark days, but there is clearly much more work to be done. As we embark on the voyage of the Starship we are surely to meet Alien beings which are stranger than we could ever imagine in both appearance and in cultural values. The science fiction novel “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven, contains a description of the Mote, which is one of the best representations of realistic aliens I have yet come across. How would we really react when we meet these beings from distant stars? Will we find their ways distasteful, unethical, and immoral? What makes our ways right?

It is clear that as we pursue the dream of the Starship, we must also learn to live with each other, because any differences we have down here on Earth, will be nothing in comparison to what awaits us in the darkest depths of the Galaxy. It is entirely possible that out there lays the best of our hopes and dreams and the worst of our nightmares. We should prepare for all eventualities, and the best way to do that is to learn to practice tolerance and compassion for each other first.