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Why We Explore

Consequences of Exploration: Learning from History Part 2

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of essays on exploration by Steven J. Dick.

The Railroad and the Space Program

There have, unfortunately, been very few studies of the societal impact of space exploration. One exception stands out from four decades ago, and I would like to share that with you, both because I think it is an interesting case study, and because it speaks to all historical analogy arguments.

The title of the study is "The Railroad and the Space Program," and in fact its subtitle is "An Exploration of Historical Analogy." One might well ask how valid analogical reasoning really is. After all, the argument using Ming China in a previous essay is only one example of a civilization that pulled back from exploration with disastrous consequences -- and even if I elaborated other cases, in science that is still what we call "small number statistics."

The Railroad and the Space Program study worried about that problem in considerable detail, and in fact went on to give the best treatment of the general use of historical analogy that I know of. Although originally suspicious of parallels with the past, present and future, the authors in the end saw "the possibility of moving up onto a level of abstraction where the terrain of the past is suggestive of the topography of the present and its future projection." They cautioned that as much empirical detail should be used as possible, and that analogies drawn from vague generalities should be avoided.

I hope the choice is to move forward into space with all the vigor we can summon, while taking into account the consequences using the lessons of history.
Confident in the use of historical analogy as suggestive, but not predictive of the future, they then went on to elaborate their analogy with the railroad and the space program. It was, they said, an engine of social revolution that had its greatest impact only 50 years after the start of the railways in America. As a transportation system, the railway had to be competitive with canals and turnpikes, and 20 years after the start of railways in America, more miles of canals were being built than railroads. It was not clear at all they could be economically feasible. And though many technological, economic and managerial hurdles needed to be overcome, railroads are still with us. In the course of the 19th century they represented human conquest of natural obstacles, with consequences for human's view of nature and our place in it.

Secondary consequences often turned out to have greater societal impact than the supposed primary purposes for which they were built. The space program has had, and still has, it technological challenges, and the economic benefits may be even longer term than the railroad. But by conquering the third dimension of space as aviation did to a very small extent in the thin skin of our atmosphere, and as the railroad did in two geographical dimensions, I venture confidently to predict that in the long run the space program will have an impact that exceeds that of the railroad.

Critical Choices

The current debate over human exploration of the Moon and Mars illustrates the choices we face. I am struck that opinion is deeply divided into two world views: those on the one hand who feel strongly that we need to address our problems at home, that space exploration is a waste of money, and on the other hand those who want to explore. The first says we cannot afford to explore; the latter answers that we cannot afford NOT to explore. A study of how these two groups came to their respective opinions would go a long way toward illuminating the underlying assumptions of our present society, and toward mapping our future.

We might well ask is it ethical NOT to explore? The Chinese case indicates that pulling back from exploration is tantamount to letting a society wither. In closing I cannot do better than quote historian Stephen J. Pyne. In his essay "Space: The Third Great Age of Discovery" he wrote that "I find it inconceivable that this country -- itself the continuing product of discovery, with its own vital creation myths inextricable entangled with the history of geographic discovery and expansion -- I find it inconceivable that such a country would surrender its exploring tradition. This is a frankly nationalist appeal. The United States in not predestined to journey to the stars: we will have to choose that destiny . . . ."

I would only add that this choice for space exploration does not have to be a nationalist appeal. Since Pyne wrote those words 15 years ago, we have a striking example of international cooperation in the International Space Station, which, one could argue, is worth the money for that alone. In other words in an ideal world, billions of dollars spent on the International Space Station is better than similarly massive amounts spent on wars stemming from lack of cooperation and lack of cultural understanding.

Space exploration -- both robotic and human -- is going to happen, it is only a question of when. Precisely because we are at a time when there are so many problems in the world I hope the choice is to move forward into space with all the vigor we can summon, while taking into account the consequences using the lessons of history. I think it is not just naive optimism to say that such a choice, especially an international endeavor, might just lift us out of our current dilemma by focusing on a goal that can unite humanity rather than divide it.

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Bruce Mazlish (ed). The Railroad and the Space Program: An Exploration in Historical Analogy. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965)

Stephen J. Pyne,"A Third Great Age of Discovery," in Sagan and Pyne, The Scientific and Historical Rationales for Solar System Exploration (GWU Space Policy Institute, 1988).

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