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Do We Have An Urge To Explore?

I explore the proposition, over at The Space Review today. Also, editor Jeff Foust has a good writeup on a recent panel discussion on the prospects for government and private spaceflight.


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Paul Spudis wrote:


A very interesting piece and not far off from my own thoughts on this. I would only note that while you cast the exploration urge as an individual one, in the case of space, there is also a collective urge (which I agree is not overly strong) but real nonetheless. I think that linking space to the idea of a frontier actually has more traction than the individualistic "because-it's-there" type of rationalization. The basic reason that societies explore is that it creates intellectual and imagination capital that can later be used to solve other, unrelated problems. An example is the extinction of the dinosaurs at the KT boundary by impact. Although impact extinction had actually been proposed by Ralph Baldwin in his book "The Face of the Moon" in 1949 (!), it wasn't until we had fully understood the complex physics and chemistry of hypervelocity impact by studying the Apollo samples that such a hypothesis was invoked to explain the KT boundary and even other mass extinctions.

This is the collective, societal value of exploration: our broadened imaginations and expanded intellectual capital allows us to imagine solutions or possible solutions to problems that we would not have otherwise visualized, or to prove a proposition that might otherwise be errant speculation.

Good article.

Well done! Since I got involved in space I've been trying to get it across to people that "exploration" is an action you take in response to some justification, not a justification in and of itself.

Often most low cost exploration is taken in response to a feeling of boredom. Caveman Joe: "Hmm... I'm well fed, nothing is trying to kill me, and I've had sex recently. Now what? I guess I could walk a little and see what's around here." But Caveman Joe isn't going to go exploring much past his surrounding valley unless something is trying to kill him, he isn't well fed, or he hasn't had sex in a really long time.

One of the things I've been curious about recently is the differences between individual motivations and societal ones. We know about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as they apply to the individual, but is there a version for society and culture?

Again, well done!

Jim Bennett wrote:

Most hunter-gatherer translocation happens in search of undepleted game areas; they need to move constantly; or to escape the population pressures caused by rival groups. For a very long time it was easier to keep moving than to fight over hunting grounds. Most nomadic livestock herders similarly move in search of fresh pasturage. Restlessness was a survival trait. Then agriculture, once you got beyond burning old fields and moving on, required just the opposite: staying in one place and doing what was known to work. So the selection pressures reversed themselves. Now we have competing memes and maybe genes, some of which were pro-survival before agriculture; some, to opposite effect, were the reverse. We probably have a mixed population in that regard. It's interesting that Australia, with almost no space program, has a big, active, non-government space settlement movement while France, with three times the population, and which has a very respectable space program, has none.

kurt9 wrote:

Pioneering and the urge for exploration are essentially the same thing. A possible metric in "measuring" the pioneering quotient of various societies around the world is to count the number of individuals and chapters of the L-5 Society in various developed countries around the world when L-5 Society was at its peak (around 1979, I believe).

My understanding was that L-5 Society was almost exclusively and American phenomenon, with Australia a fairly distant 2nd.

I think pioneering is exclusively a Western cultural value, primarily American, that the rest of the world largely does not share (think of China at the end of the Ming dynasty).

Brock wrote:

I really don't understand why more people AREN'T afraid of killer asteroids. A few longitudes either way and Tunguska could have been "the Moscow event" or "the Tokyo event." To me it's certainly scarier than global warming, and a lot more likely (IMO) than an alien attack. Comets are also a concern, as others have mentioned. And considering the amount of money that gets spend on stupid crap in this country, it's seems like a "no brainer" investment.

We probably won't do anything about it until it's relatively easy though. There's no political constituency, alas, and insurance companies can only insure against the stuff society can recover from. It's government or bust. The Lunar safari and Asteroid platinum groups are more likely to the be the drivers that get Americans up there, and then some EU-Canadian consortium will eventually fund it while the US is still blowing money on corn subsidies. Stupid is as stupid does, but there it is.

Paul F. Dietz wrote:

there is a collective urge

Collections have urges, beyond mere composition of the urges of the individuals in the collection? What can that even mean?

Robert Horning wrote:

I think it will be interesting if/when there are enough people in space that it will be difficult to keep track of what they are all doing... and certainly people doing things like conceiving and giving birth to children somewhere other than on the Earth is something slightly less newsworthy than a mother giving birth while on a trans-atlantic flight.

I don't know when exactly that moment in history will happen, if it ever will happen, but it seems as though the number of people that will be able to legitimately claim to have gone more than 100 km above the surface of this planet is going to mushroom to 10's of thousands and potentially millions of people.

Even more to the point.... once you have a bunch of people "up there" and having access to spacecraft and plenty of fuel to get around, I don't expect them to stay put and live in their nice and comfortable little "space houses". They'll get loose and start doing things that will require explicit government intervention to stop them from going to different places in the Solar System.

Who might be the space version of Jim Bridger or Jedediah Smith I can't say, but there certainly will be individuals who will fill in that sort of frontiersman niche in "the final frontier". The trick is to get people up there in the first place, and to get rid of the government BS paperwork and regulations that stop us as a species from getting up there.

As a child of the pioneers who blazed the Oregon Trail (for good or ill, you can decide for yourself), my family's heritage is to move to distant lands and make a new life in a place others considered inhospitable. I don't see that story ending with my ancestors either.

Chuck Divine wrote:

It wasn't necessary for everyone, even in hunter -gatherer societies, to have some sort of exploration gene. Just as it wasn't essential for everyone to have some sort of gene for higher intelligence. A mix of people with a variety of characteristics was needed for any sort of group. You needed people to maintain the group as well as explorers to find new resources.

What's troubling to me today is the extent to which people with various characteristics are going to in order to dominate others. For some control freaks, anything that smacks of disorder must be stopped. It doesn't matter that such behavior harms the group as a whole -- sometimes even the person who is doing it.

We still need exploration to help us understand the extraterrestrial environment and how we can live and work in it.

Last week at the NewSpace conference I learned that it took 50 attempts for the British to establish a successful colony in North America. As was pointed out, there was already a somewhat successful model in place, begun by the Spanish. What's also troubling is that the British were moving into an environment much like the one they left. The difference between the Earth and space is far greater than the difference between Britain and America.

To really succeed out there, we need all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. And we need to work together.

You're right, though, about doing other things than simply exploring. Exploration only appeals to a small subset of humanity.

Paul F. Dietz wrote:

Those promoting the notion that a biological drive justifies actions (let alone a government program implementing the actions) should consider the case of rape. If some rapists commit their assaults for reasons of underlying neurobiology, does that make rape a good thing? If it doesn't, then why is this naturalistic argument being applied to a putative drive to explore?

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on July 21, 2008 5:58 AM.

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