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Space exploration: A philosophical case

In a thoughtful column on the end of NASA, Cal Thomas offers some reflections worth considering:

Former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin believes the space agency has “lost its way.” In an article for Air & Space magazine in 2007, Griffin set out the philosophical argument for “The Real Reason We Explore Space”:

“…most of us want to be, both as individuals and as societies, the first or the best in some activity … a second reason is curiosity. … Finally we humans have, since the earliest civilizations, built monuments. We want to leave something behind to show the next generation … what we did with our time here. This is the impulse behind cathedrals and pyramids, art galleries and museums.”

And retired shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma,

“In days gone by, and in order to capture support for a new space initiative, NASA would offer all kinds of rationale to sideline critics and to make the ‘sale’, that is, spin-off innovative new products, strengthen national security, inspire education, manage Earth’s resources, capture 6-7 times return on investment, etc. … Nobody was far-sighted enough during the Apollo buildup to ‘sell’ the public and to blunt criticism, by predicting a computer in every home, the Internet, GPS, cellphones, medical instrumentation and a host of other ‘far-out’ inventions.

Sources agree that a historic shift is under way. In addition to the positive case for space exploration, noted above, a “negative” case is also being made (= we’re better off with it than without it): Consider the current penchant for speculation on multiverses and space aliens, as a substitute for research:

About the multiverse, it is appropriate to keep an open mind, and opinions among scientists differ widely. In the Austin airport on the way to this meeting I noticed for sale the October issue of a magazine called Astronomy, having on the cover the headline “Why You Live in Multiple Universes.” Inside I found a report of a discussion at a conference at Stanford, at which Martin Rees said that he was sufficiently confident about the multiverse to bet his dog’s life on it, while Andrei Linde said he would bet his own life. As for me, I have just enough confidence about the multiverse to bet the lives of both Andrei Linde and Martin Rees’s dog.

- The Nature of Nature , p. 155.

There are at least 50 billion exoplanets in our galaxy. What’s more, astronomers estimate that 500 million of these alien worlds are probably sitting inside the habitable zones of their parent stars. Making estimates may sound trivial, but it does put the search for ET into perspective. There’s at least 50 billion worlds, which have fostered the development of basic lifeforms? How many have allowed advanced civilizations to evolve? ”

If there are any space-faring alien races out there, “The next question is why haven’t they visited us?”Borucki asked. He responded with: “I don’t know.”

- Kepler science chief William Borucki, quoted in Ian O’Neill, “Milky way stuffed with 50 billion alien worlds”, Discover (Feb 19, 2011).

So, some ask, is this the future, where “The Eagle has landed” was the past?

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