Many of us have grown up with Space Science raised high on a pedestal; the pinnacle of humankinds achievements. I, for one, never really questioned this. And yet when I read an article juxtaposing Elon Musks airy aspirations with problems on earth, right here, right now – I had to change my mind. I’m not saying we shouldn’t fund space. But I am arguing that we all need to engage in the question as to what proportion of our resources should be focused on this most enthralling of sciences.
I love space.
At my parents house, on a cold autumn night, you can see the soft cloud of the Milkyway reaching across the sky. It’s difficult to make out because of all the thousands of other stars glittering in the chill. When I was given money to go travelling I spent it on a telescope through which I could see the coloured bands on the giant Jupiter. I’ve taught Physics for nine years, Astronomy GCSE for two, spending my time waxing lyrical about the Apollo missions, engaging students with the mysteries of dark matter and black holes.
I really do love space.
Then I read ‘Whitey on the Moon’. This article, written by Andrew Russell and Lee Vince, assigned reading for the ‘Responsible Science and Innovation’ module on my MSc, was about Elon Musk and the irresponsibility of the space race.
I’d already started questioning some of my instinctual feelings about the allocation of science funding when reading Dan Sarewitz’s ‘Saving Science’. I found the Sarewitz piece very confrontational but it raised a number of serious points about the benefits of goal orientated research. It made me think.
Vince and Russell’s piece however, that was a little too close to the bone. I wasn’t sure about how I felt and I needed to examine the debate more closely.
Our love of space hasn’t sprung up since our ability to get there. Throughout history we have looked to the heavens; for our myths and legends, our understanding of how the world began and where we came from. It has been the seat of the Gods, a place of divine inspiration and our source of knowledge. Then in the 17th century Kepler wrote of a trip to the moon and how the earth would look from there – we began to imagine space travel (and Keplers mother got arrested for being a witch). This really takes off with Science fiction and travelling into Space to develop a new Utopia (for a very quick introduction see Science Fiction Encyclopedias ‘Space Flight’).
Science fiction raised its questions about space travel investigating dystopias alongside utopias. People were worried about it but Space allowed this, it gave room for the imagination. Come the Apollo missions, Space was the thing we all were encouraged to love. In the Brainpickings blog Michelle Legro reviews the book ‘Marketing the Moon’ which disseminates NASA the brand and how they ‘sold Space to America’
This is where things start to get a bit worrying. This was one hell of a marketing campaign, you can see echoes of it in the education curriculum of today – we still describe the space race, the Apollo missions and the freedom of science to investigate. But this campaign covered up the fact that at the time there was a considerable lack of support for the race to the moon.
When Vince and Russell quote their articles namesake, the spoken poem ‘Whitey on the Moon’, I can’t help but recall my own education. I was taught all about the Apollo missions, I remember making cardboard rockets. But American civil rights was an unknown part of history until many years later.
I can’t help but blanche at the financial figures, when you consider the lack of health care and the social poverty that still isn’t resolved. I think about the recent space mission with Tim Peake – how exciting it was to have a British Astronaut in space. But I don’t remember anyone being asked? The House of Commons ‘Science and Technology Committee’ report referencing his flight doesn’t give a breakdown but gives the UK’s total contribution to the European Space Agency at £240 million.
But how many students will now study physics because Tim Peake went to the moon? Can we put a monetary value on that? Is that the point?
Manchester University reports the ‘Brian Cox effect’ as a 52% rise in applications to study Physics since 2008. More people have become involved in the sciences because of a fascination with space. This doesn’t touch on the ‘ground up’ technologies and data (including climate data) gained from the space programs.
If we are to develop science, to engage future scientists, to develop the knowledge that can then be used to solve the world’s problems – surely we must allow science to dream, to allow it a place where the imagination can lead to new discoveries.
There is a problem with this though; in the World Government Summit in Dubai the following (approx 20:38mins) is stated:
“Make sure researchers don’t get carried away — scientists get so engrossed in their work they don’t realise the ramifications of what they are doing.”
And the speaker? Elon Musk.
He was referring to work on A.I. but the same could easily be said about Space Flight and Elon Musk.
Vince and Russell discuss not only the financial implications but the rich and powerful divorcing themselves from the world’s problems; returning to that science fiction trope of creating a new utopia for ‘humanity’ (the very rich part of it.)
We will not solve the problems of the here and now, let alone the future problems of climate change, resource depletion or even the possible ‘technological disaster of A.I’ (an open question in itself); if we are spending our time and money dreaming of creating a world that doesn’t exist.
Has all of this changed my mind about space? No it hasn’t.
I still love space. I still think we should invest in space, in particle physics and in other esoteric ‘pure research’ areas of science. But dreams can’t be funded to the detriment of the community that is living life right now. Some of these priorities are considerably less enthralling, but that doesn’t mean the work doesn’t need to be done.
Choices need to be made in regards the allocation of resources and everyone; the poor, the rich, the scientist, the man at arms, everyone must engage and consider the priorities.
Science should be allowed to dream, but not to sleep whilst the world around it crumbles away
End note: I’m open to discussion as to the perceived dangers of A.I. Elon Musk apparently isn’t (although is reported by wired as having invested in DeepMind?!.) That’s too deep a question right now. What’s making me laugh / frightened though is the question ‘Does Musk think he’s faster than Google?’ Are we going to witness a weird race of the elite where Elon Musk and his friends try to escape before Googles DeepMind decides to harness their brains for the future good of mankind….