It is common knowledge that large volumes of sci-fi literature speculate at length and in detail on the subject of deep space exploration and interstellar travel. Well, the truth is that sci-fi lies. Deep space exploration is never going to happen.
Let’s take a look at the idea that lies behind the deep space exploration and flying to other distant planets, more distant than Mars, let’s say. Usually, the purpose of the enterprise is the extraction of some minerals that possess useful properties yet are very scarce or not available at all on the planet Earth. Thus, basically, deep space exploration is associated with the extraction of valuable mineral resources. This in essence is the paradigm of the Age of Discovery when missions set out to find and bring home spices, oils and gold, and new lands were discovered in the process. Sci-fi simply has projected this paradigm to the future. And it is this very idea, whether explicitly or implicitly, that supports all the writings about deep space exploration. Basically, every single sci-fi piece by definition goes on about the extraction of some “spice mélange” or “giftonium”.
One other idea driving the deep space exploration is the need for the new territories for humans to live on. This, again, brings us back to the Middle Ages when second sons, driven by the prospects of no chances for an inheritance, first became the engine of the Crusades and later on of the colonial conquests. This was the way the second sons procured for themselves their new patrimony and a source of income. There were also other drivers in history, compelled the masses of people to look for new lands for living. So that idea of space exploration refers to this historical experience as well.Thus, as soon as we openly acknowledge that the dream of pursuing deep space exploration rests on nothing but the search for new lands or resources it becomes clear that this dream is doomed. The mere costs, the amount of energy resources, the scope of the consolidated effort of many nations, the required level of development of the technologies that are needed to actually launch deep space missions designed to bring us new salt and pepper or rare gems will boil down to basically the same costs as are required to synthesize the new salt and pepper or rare gems.
Let’s now factor in historical time into the situation. It appears fair to assess that the amount of time required for the humanity to develop to the stage when interstellar travel would be possible with all the large-volume interstellar cargo exchange routine would equal the amount of time required for the humanity to develop technologies sufficient to synthesize any mineral or element. Strictly speaking, man has already turned lead into gold – whereas in the area of space exploration, man has barely got out of his own back yard. Given this, what do you think will happen sooner – advanced material synthesis or interstellar flights? And, most importantly, what would be its purpose?
By the time mankind will be able to send a space mission any farther than Mars, the technologies can be expected to develop enough to enable mankind to synthesize various substances and materials for practical application. And it is actually questionable whether mankind will need any substances at that technologically advanced stage as it may render dependency on substances and materials obsolete.
Strictly speaking, even a manned mission to Mars is very questionable. Until today, the success of space exploration was driven by the military. This is exactly why space exploration occurred so fast, over a mere couple of decades. And this is also why it never really went beyond the Earth orbit – simply because the military has no need or interest in any further. As soon as the military and political needs have been satisfied (and later on rendered unnecessary with the dissolution of the Soviet), space exploration basically halted.
Space exploration as a technologies development track is essentially a dead-end track. It has already served its historical purpose by creating the environment for the development of computers, materials, communications. After the end of the Cold War, over the most recent 30 years, no further progress in space exploration has been made.
Neither search for new spices, nor for new lands can be the reason to make deep space exploration happen – however, curiosity can. Yet, it is quite possible to satisfy curiously without all the cumbersome relocation of big masses of metal, plastics and organics across vast distances.
Media futurist, сoordinator for the Russian Association of Futurologists. Extracted from the report presented at the session of the Philosophical Research Society on 31 August, 2010, in Moscow.
- Deep Space Exploration Trials Sure Look Boring (gizmodo.co.uk)
- NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration (wired.com)
- It’s Official: Voyager 1 Has Left the Solar System (gizmodo.com)
- Machines Beat Humans in Race to Escape Our Doomed Solar System (gizmodo.com)
- Voyager 1 first human-made object in interstellar space – New York Daily News (nydailynews.com)