Think Space Exploration Isn’t Moving Fast Enough? You’re Not Alone.

Playing it safe won’t get us to the stars

Saturn-with planets-631.jpg
The solar system beckons: Cassini spacecraft view of Saturn, looking back toward the inner planets NASA

Where is our Moon Base? What about those Earth-like planets we’re supposed to have found by now? Extraterrestrial life? A human mission to Mars? In short, what happened to the 20th century dreams that were fueled by the Apollo missions and Viking landings on Mars?

There is still plenty of excitement in the fields of space science and technology. That was evident at the recent Kepler Science Conference, held at NASA Ames to report on the discovery of new exoplanets, and is regularly found at astrobiology science meetings. But these days, there are at least as many setbacks as advances. The NASA-sponsored 2014 Astrobiology meeting has been postponed due to federal spending restrictions on conferences, and when it comes to launching new missions to address big scientific questions, progress is painfully slow. Why should we wait years for another mission to search for second Earths? Why send another orbiter to Mars (MAVEN is scheduled to launch next week) when we have the technological capability to search for life on the planet’s surface, or launch a probe to splash down on one of Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes?

Is it really all about budget? Or did we lose the type of risk-taking ability that propelled Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and NASA to the Moon—the willingness to also accept failure, which is inherent when you attempt giant strides. Frustration with the slow pace of progress extends all across the public, including college students, scientists and fiction writers.

It’s also been noted by government agencies. In 2011 NASA finally reinstated the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to fund far-horizon research, but since then only ten in-depth studies have been funded, with another five to seven to be selected in August 2014. The National Science Foundation initiated its INSPIRE program with the goal to promote “bold interdisciplinary projects.” But innovation frequently gets short-changed when review panels realize that a high-impact study often comes with a high risk of failure.  All too often, the word “innovative” ends up being only lip service, because reviewers and funding agencies prefer to play it safe. The result is that many scientists are becoming high-tech technicians who only try to optimize past inventions rather than propose something truly revolutionary. And the ones still willing to take risks are chronically underfunded.

Another possibility is that we really are running out of ideas. “You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, addressing science fiction writers at the Future Tense Conference a couple of years ago. Good science fiction not only helps us set goals, but also shows ways to reach the envisioned technological future. According to writer Neal Stephenson, implementing new technologies on a heroic scale is no longer the childish preoccupation of a few nerds, but is the only way for the human species to escape from its current predicaments. One outcome of the Future Tense Conference was the proposal to produce an anthology of new science fiction, referred to as the Hieroglyph Project, to show new pathways to invention and discovery. Finally, two years later, one of the major academic science publishers took up this idea and came out with a new Science and Fiction book series.

Just envisioning the future won’t take us there, however. Maybe it’s just me, but I miss the cowboy mentality of the 1960s. We decided to go to the Moon and we did it – even if it seemed dangerous, reckless, even insane. Now we’re on a much more timid course, exploring from our safe, computer-generated virtual environments. Perhaps this is the true solution of the Fermi Paradox – the reason why we haven’t met other spacefaring civilizations. It’s time to turn things around.

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