I spoke at a debate at Exeter University's debating society yesterday in favour of human, as opposed to robot, space exploration. Here is roughly what I said:
I would say that human spaceflight and settlement off-world is as inevitable and natural as the first fish crawling out of the sea, or humans leaving Africa, and this is why:
It is already possible, given the will: Six humans are living in space on the ISS which is already providing a dividend in showing Americans and Russians that they can co-operate. For this reason the ISS has been suggested for a Nobel prize. The Moon and Mars are settle-able in the next few decades, the Moon being the obvious first choice.
Even interstellar travel is more possible than you might think because special relativity says that time slows down aboard a spaceship moving very fast. So if you have an engine powerful enough to get you close to the speed of light, you can travel anywhere in the galaxy in the lifetime of a human on the ship, just not in the lifetime of people back on Earth. This gets rid of the need for generation-ships or suspended animation and reduces galactic colonisation from something that most people think is an impossibility, to merely a extremely difficult engineering problem (you have to accelerate and decelerate at 1g, 9.8 m/s^2, for a year, and then cruise).
New physics is coming, since general relativity has difficulty with galaxies (needing arbitrary dark matter), with cosmology (needing dark energy) and is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, and there are experimental problem like the EPR-Bell tests and other anomalies. I have suggested MiHsC
to fix these problems.
Where do we go? Well, this is the time and place to ask that. Many
exoplanets are now being discovered, some will be like the Earth, and
one of the main centres for exoplanet research is here at Exeter University.
So if it is possible, is it a good idea? I would argue yes as follows:
Insurance: Humans have had a long and painful struggle to civilise (well, partially anyway) and we have something unique to say. It would be a shame if that was lost. Off-world colonies are essential so that if the Earth is damaged by an asteroid, nuclear war or climate change, humanity will endure and our long history will not be in vain.
Finite planet: Earth's resources are finite, and yes, we should learn to be sustainable, this will also help us with space travel and settlement, but even with sustainable policies, resources will eventually run out on the finite Earth. Space offers infinite or at least mind-boggling resources.
The need for challenge: humans have an innate need for challenge, and the challenges on Earth are running out and in these circumstances there is the danger of degenerating into a stagnant heirarchical society where a few try to make money off the rest. We need a collective and hopeful project, like Project Apollo, to bind our society together and give everyone hope of a better future. Hope is important. Also, the failures of a system can often only be seen by looking at it from the outside, that is increasingly difficult in our connected world.
Cultural diversity: The culture of Earth is becoming more uniform and this is a shame since it leads to sterility. There is very little option now to try radical new ideas on Earth, but if some people left the planet they could start radically different societies and experiment with them, just as the Pilgrim fathers did and devised a better constitution, and other brilliant inventions, eg: pizza.
The imperative: If we look at plants & animals we see the huge resources they put into reproduction, for example Salmon return over whole oceans to their birth place to reproduce. Evolution has made them that way since the ones who couldn't be bothered left no offspring. Lovelock has suggested that the Earth is an organism. If so, then it is logical to say it intends to reproduce. Is it developing us, a space-faring species, to do that?
Exploration by proxy is shallow: History tells us that if you send people to new environments, in this case other planets, they'll invent things we'd never dream of. One example is Charles Darwin who went to the Galapagos Islands and noticed the animals varied from island to island and thought of evolution. Robots are not yet creative like this. A robot on the Moon may be the eyes for someone back on Earth, but that someone is still on the Earth sat on a chair. If the person was on the Moon, they would think in a different way and could be a new Thomas Jefferson or Darwin, inventing a better society or a better way to generate energy.
The importance of human exploration is instinctively understood: almost no-one remembers the first probe to the Moon (Luna 2) but everyone remembers the first human. You can’t predict the ideas space settlers will have, but you can help it to happen by voting for human spaceflight today.