A Half Century of Human Spaceflight
12 April 2011
I couldn’t let the day pass without noting the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight. There are many points in time that we might identify as the advent of the Space Age, and by this measure the Space Age is officially fifty years old.
The anniversary has been quite widely noted in the press. The Financial Times weekend edition had interviews with quite a few astronauts, and the BBC had a variety of stories. (Google also had a nice graphic for the occasion.) In a bit of unintended irony, NASA just announced what museums will receive space shuttles — as thought to signal that our space program will now be in a glass case. What is missing from today’s celebration? Well, it is pretty obvious that no one planned an anniversary flight. There are a few encouraging signs of the privatization of the industry, but in terms of public interest it has been downhill since 1969. Thus the First Space Age was a brief eight years from 1961 to 1969.
When will the next Space Age arrive? no one can say. But we can, at very least, say that the advent of the Second Space Age is a known unknown rather than an unknown unknown. If humanity has a future, that future is not confined to the surface of the earth. That much is obvious. Nothing else, however, is obvious, including the answer to the question whether humanity has a future.
In the Afterword to my Political Economy of Globalization I formulated an explicit argument for the value of human space travel. I was rather pleased with this argument, but no one reads my book, so no one has taken notice of the argument. I’ve thought of turning this argument into a book of its own, which I may do someday. Perhaps I’ll even finish the book before the dawn of the Second Space Age: both would seem to be equally unlikely.
In any case, we are now a spacefaring species, and have been for fifty years. This is a milestone for humanity and in the development of civilization. On the Kardashev scale a a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet. I’ve always thought that the Kardashev scale was a fun idea to think about, a really visionary way to conceive civilization, but it is an ambiguous and not very helpful measure. I would much prefer a measure of civilization based on spacefaring metrics.
For example, we could say that a Type I spacefaring civilization has the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. A Type II spacefaring civilization might be defined as one that had established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of its biological origin. This presence might be on a moon or another planet or on a space station, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is the idea of a self-sustaining presence that could continue despite whatever might befall a civilization’s world of origin. Thus a Type II spacefaring civilization is the minimum condition for the long-term survivability of a species and a civilization.
A Type III spacefaring civilization would have achieved practical and durable interstellar travel. Establishment of a Type III spacefaring civilization is obviously contingent upon the prior establishment of a Type II spacefaring civilization, just as a Type II spacefaring civilization is contingent upon the establishment of a Type I spacefaring civilization. The possibility of interstellar travel, even if no unknown unknown technological breakthroughs make an interstellar round-trip possible within a single human lifetime, can still be realized by a self-sustained presence off the surface of a planet, by way of generational starships.
Beyond Type III spacefaring civilizations the next obvious increment would be Type IV spacefaring civilizations that would be defined in terms of practical and durable inter-galactic travel. These possibilities of spacefaring civilization are readily quantifiable and verifiable, and for this reason constitute a better measure of civilization than the Kardashev scale.
Evolutionary biologists sometimes say that an organism that fails to survive or fails to reproduce is invisible to natural selection. And so, too, on a cosmic scale, humanity will be invisible to that natural selection that takes place on the largest scale in the constitution of the universe if we fail to assure the survival and reproduction of our species and our civilization. Being a spacefaring civilization is the first step toward assuring the durability of civilization and our visibility to natural selection on a cosmological level.
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