Why explore space?

Why explore space? Why do we want to explore outer space, the cosmos and the stars? Today, space activities are frequently justified on the basis of economic or policy rationales, or the benefits deriving from space spinoffs. Yet the dream of spaceflight is as old as Humanity and found in cultures around the world. So what drives us to explore the cosmos?

Are we genetically programmed for exploration, or is it the product of social/cultural factors? This new article on Space Legal Issues will explore the cultural, spiritual, social, and philosophical motivations that underpin humanity’s interest in moving beyond its home planet and reaching for the stars.

Why explore space?

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin described two types of answers: “acceptable reasons” and “real reasons”. The “real reasons” have deep roots in human culture, spirituality, psychology and social needs and provide the cultural rationales for space activities. Analysis of the oldest myths indicates that the desire to reach for the stars is part of Humanity’s ancient spiritual quest to understand its place in the cosmos.

Acceptable Reasons could be summarised this way: Economic/policy rationales, Military/national security rationales, Scientific knowledge gained, and Benefits deriving from space spinoffs. Real Reasons could be summarised that way: Curiosity, Challenge/Adventure, Exploration/Discovery, and Knowledge/Inspiration.

Curiosity and the Urge to Explore

Why explore space? Curiosity about the world around us is a basic human trait, which is linked to the urge to explore. Some anthropologists believe this urge is genetic and may even be considered the primary force in evolution. Curiosity enabled us to develop tools and technology, allowing a more rapid adaptation to different environments than normal evolution would permit. In this view, space exploration can be seen as the continuation of millennia of human exploration.

An alternate view is that the desire to explore is not genetic, but a social activity that arises and diminishes in different cultures at different times, depending upon the availability of suitable motivations, resources (or lack of resources), opportunities, and so on. In this case, there may only be a limited window in which to establish a solid infrastructure for ongoing space activities, before other issues on Earth cause a retreat from exploring the cosmos for a time.

Cultural Dynamism and the Social Value of Challenge

Why explore space? Cultural systems must remain dynamic and evolving in order to survive: if they become static they lose vitality, they stagnate, and decline. The decline of medieval China after its 15th century CE decision to close itself off from the outside world is a good example of this principle. The Space Race between the United States of America and the U.S.S.R. was also an example of cultural dynamism in action. Space exploration is seen as a positive means of promoting cultural dynamism through the exploration and utilisation of new environments and resources.

Some human societies and individuals thrive on challenge. Meeting challenges is seen as a way of channelling potentially destructive individual or social energies into positive goals. Space exploration in the 20th century CE was seen as a national challenge, undertaken as evidence of a vigorous culture and superior political ideology.

Spaceflight as a Cultural Monument

Why explore space? Throughout history, cultures have chosen to expend wealth on “monuments” to demonstrate their power and vitality. The development of spaceflight can be seen as the 20th century CE equivalent of such a monument.

Post-Space Age Cultural Rationales

In recent decades, additional cultural rationales have arisen. Spaceflight capability is seen as a survival strategy for Humanity in the event of a major asteroid impact, global nuclear war, or environmental catastrophe. Settlements on the Moon, Mars, or in space colonies would ensure the survival of the human race. Fascination with spaceflight has also been seen as a means to encourage young people to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at school and college level, while space tourism has been promoted on the basis of allowing increased numbers of people to experience the Overview Effect and thus improve intercultural understanding.

Is Spaceflight Our Destiny?

Why explore space? Some philosophical concepts, such as Russian “Cosmism”, or the American idea of “Manifest Destiny” promote the view that the expansion of Humanity into the Solar System and beyond is not only beneficial, but inevitable. Human beings have a destiny to explore and colonise the cosmos. Yet other nations have seen spaceflight as a challenge and/or an opportunity, without believing it to be their destiny.

Russian cosmism is a philosophical and cultural movement that emerged in Russia in the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries CE. Cosmism entailed a broad theory of natural philosophy, combining elements of religion and ethics with a history and philosophy of the origin, evolution, and future existence of the cosmos and humankind. It combined elements from both Eastern and Western philosophic traditions as well as from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Among the major representatives of Russian cosmism was Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov (1828 – 1903), an advocate of radical life extension by means of scientific methods, human immortality, and resurrection of dead people. In 1881, Russian revolutionary and rocket pioneer Nikolai Kibalchich proposed an idea of pulsed rocket propulsion by combustion of explosives.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857 – 1935) was among the pioneers of theoretical space exploration and cosmonautics. In 1903, he published The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reactive Devices, the first serious scientific work on space travel. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky believed that colonising space would lead to the perfection of the human race, with immortality and a carefree existence. He also developed ideas of the “animated atom” as well as “radiant mankind”.

Manifest Destiny was a widely held belief in the 19th century CE United States of America that its settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to Manifest Destiny: the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, the mission of the United States of America to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America, and an irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty. There was never a set of principles defining Manifest Destiny, therefore it was always a general idea rather than a specific policy made with a motto.

Frederick Merk (August 15, 1887 – September 24, 1977), an American historian, says this concept of Manifest Destiny was born out of “a sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example generated by the potentialities of a new Earth for building a new heaven”.