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Why A Partisan for Spaceflight Wants to Slow Down Space Exploration

Michael Bouchey

26 October, 2016

Elon Musk presents his plan for the colonization of Mars at the International Astronautical Congress.

Author Michael Bouchey is a doctoral candidate in the STS program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Elon Musk’s recent key note speech at the International Astronautical Congress described his vision to send humans to Mars within 10 years. The prospect of human beings finally setting foot on another heavenly body after over 50 years is creating a great deal of excitement among partisans for spaceflight. However, the part of Musk’s speech that most resonated with me was his goal of “improving the probability that the future is good.” While this is merely a sound bite that still leaves many questions unanswered, its sentiment is clearly agreeable. It is also my goal to improve the probability that the future is good. But this goal will not be accomplished by pushing forward blindly without heed for the consequences of such rapid development. Instead it is achieved by slowing down the pace of space development to make room for learning by doing so that people may proceed more intelligently.

What I mean by “intelligently” is that spaceflight should proceed in a manner that maximizes the ability to learn by doing: it should maximize chances for learning and applying what is learned. Without such learning, spaceflight must rely on prediction to protect against errors, in which case Musk might as well rely on astrology rather than astronomy. Several factors affect learning. First, each change must be punctuated by enough time for errors to reveal themselves. Second, there must be people who are paying active attention to feedback indicating errors. Third, time and resources must be invested into interpreting that feedback. Fourth, resources and time must be made available for discussing what changes are warranted based on that feedback. Fifth, there must be incentives to modify behavior on the basis of these previous points. If you accept, as I do, that it is better to proceed in new technological endeavors through trial and error with an eye for learning, rather than plunging blindly forward, then it logically follows that technological endeavors such as space colonization should follow at least these five tenets.

An important thread throughout these tenets is a slower pace of technological development than is currently practiced. Each of the five tenets of trial and error learning requires time, and thus a relatively slow pace. First, conducting fewer trials at any given time improves learning: more trials mean less attention paid to each trial, and impeded learning. Second, the longer the time span between changes (i.e. the longer each trial is ‘open’), the greater the chance of catching an error and negotiating a better solution. Third, larger trials mean larger errors, and larger errors are more difficult to correct and more devastating to the people who must suffer the consequences. Thus smaller trials are better for reducing the severity of the errors and making them easier to correct. Conducting smaller trials means conducting more trials, which takes time.

Elon Musk’s timeline for travel to Mars

Is Musk following these tenets? Since following them requires setting an appropriate pace of development we can also ask: is Musk setting an appropriate pace? Musk plans on having an in-development model of his spaceship ready for test flights in only four years. He further wants a mission to Mars in a mere 10 years. Of course this timeline is still very uncertain. But what is certain is that Musk wants Mars colonization to occur “as fast as possible.” The ostensible reason for going to Mars is to save humanity. However, as I have written about previously, Musk wants enough people on Mars to save humanity from unforeseen disasters that might constitute an extinction event. He pays little attention to the extinctions already created by humans that have led this period on Earth to be called the anthropocene. If going to Mars is indeed a desirable way to save humanity (and planet Earth), then those who go will have to abandon the ways of living that have caused climate change (and the host of related environmental problems) and learn new ones. This will take time, and intelligent trial and error learning applies to this endeavor too. Musk’s proposal is too hasty to account for the immense learning that will be required to avoid spreading the environmentally destructive socioeconomics of the West to this new planet. 

In addition to the very valid concern that moving human life to Mars will allow the environmental destruction of planet Earth to continue unchecked, another possible error is the contamination of a potential Martian biosphere. It is perfectly feasible that Mars is home to microbial colonies of extremophiles, and sending humans to Mars thus risks wiping out Martian life. Several questions need answering even before addressing the ethics of such a risk. How would contamination impact Martian microbes? Could contamination damage be mitigated or reversed? Beyond this, there must be time to decide the right thing to do. Musk doesn’t believe the issue is important, but the fate of extraterrestrial life is not his to decide. Democratic deliberation about the ethics of the risks to Martian life will also require time, and trial and error to get right. It will take several trials to even determine the level of risk, and even more to determine the importance of planetary protection. Despite the innumerable other potential errors in addition to those already mentioned Musk’s timeline leaves very little room for trial and error learning. Although I want as badly as some to see humans living in space, Musk’s plan moves at much too quick a pace to be implemented intelligently.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.