Technology

Opponents of space exploration come crawling out of the woodwork

While most people seem to approve of President Trump's renewed push for space exploration, starting with a return to the moon and then going to Mars, either believing it to be either a priority or at least important things to do, according to a Pew Poll, not everyone agrees. The opponents of exploring the heavens, who have been with us since the dawn of the space program, have started coming out of the woodwork like unquiet ghosts to annoy the living.

Amitai Etzioni, an adviser to the Carter administration, argues we can either colonize Mars or we can save the Earth from climate change. Neither gentleman seems willing to embrace the awesome power of the word "and." Indeed, space technology developed for power generation and recycling will have a great impact on the environment when applied on Earth.

Syfy Wire political columnist and culture critic Ana Marie Cox, using her well-known arsenal of snark, takes up the same argument where colonizing the moon is concerned, even mentioning the water crisis in Flint, a municipal government problem, that needs attending to before sending people into deep space. She also implies that space exploration is an exclusive obsession of socially awkward men.

"And, much as with women's bodies, there seems to be no amount of science that can keep some men from mystifying the moon - and wanting to see it colonized. But also as with women's bodies, there are also people who have taken our advanced understanding of the formerly mysterious and used it as a foundation for further leaps of imagination." 

The sound the reader hears is that of women scientists, astronauts, engineers, and business entrepreneurs slapping their faces with their palms in exasperation. It is as if women like Katherine Johnson, Margaret Hamilton, and Sara Howard have lived and worked in vain. Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, might raise an eyebrow at the absurdity of that paragraph.

The next person back to the moon may well be a woman, considering NASA's diverse astronaut corps. The idea that space is the enthusiasm solely of a group of geeky men who probably can't relate to women is sexist on its face. How can women be attracted to the STEM fields when people like Cox write things like that?

Zahaan Bharmal, thankfully, leaves off using misandrist arguments against space exploration. But he resorts to all the old objections in the Guardian.

We can't colonize Mars because we would contaminate it with Earth bacteria. However, if such were to happen, it may well be the first life the Red Planet has had in billions of years. The idea that Mars should forever be a science microbe preserve is absurd on its face.

Bharmal; goes on to say that robots can explore space better than humans. This assertion arises from time to time from people unfamiliar with state-of-the-art robotics and artificial intelligence. Indeed, a study conducted by the Royal Astronomical Society debunked that objection almost 15 years ago. 

Finally. Bharmal repeats the fallacy expressed by the Etzionis and Cox that we can't colonize Mars until we fix the Earth. The problem is that the Earth will never be entirely fixed, meaning that humanity will be trapped on one planet forever more, subject to the peril of extinction-level events including environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, or an asteroid strike such as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Humanity at the very least needs the elbow room that space colonies can provide. Space can also provide some of the ways that Earth can be made better,

The exploration and settlement of space has been delayed for decades because policymakers listened too much to people who have a strange revulsion to the idea of going out to the high frontier for adventure, knowledge, and profit. Surely their hoary, quaint arguments have been so thoroughly and often discredited that they should be laughed off to the fringes where they belong. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies "Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as "The Moon, Mars and Beyond."

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