Reflections after 50 Years of Space
A protege of Wernher von Braun, Jesco von Puttkamer has spent his long career working in human spaceflight. In this long essay, von Puttkamer gives his perspective on humanity's next steps into the universe. Here he suggests there is an evolutionary imperative for exploring the Red Planet.
To summarize and conclude: Why explore and settle Mars?
In today's view, this question falls in the larger context of the fundamental question of the rationale and purpose of human spaceflight per se, that is, in the "transutilitarian" realm beyond its tangible and undeniably utilitarian applications in our daily life and environmental work.
There is, first, the sociocultural process of humans moving beyond frontiers in exploring and settling space: It stands in the spirit that has motivated human researchers at all times: the inspirational urge to expand the borders of human knowledge and understanding and, thereby, the range of our existence, our life and activity. From the very moment when humans first achieved awareness this was the fundamental reason why they went on exploring, opening up the domains of land, water, and air, and are today pushing out into space, the fourth domain, over and over again.
The Exploration Imperative is fundamentally embedded in our history, our traditions, all the way back to the myths and fairy tales of old, that is, in the subconscious and social ethos not only of the USA but of all humankind. In North America the dramatic development of an entire continent would not have been possible without it - without the ingenuity, audacity and tenacity of generations of immigrants and settlers intent on continuously expanding the frontiers of their world by learning how to live off a wealth of available resources.
Today men and women have explored almost every corner of our planet, even the wasteland of distant Antarctica (where U.S. Geologist Roberta Score found the Martian meteorite ALH84001 in 1984). But in space, too, there are ample resources, and thus in this century men and women will continue to push toward increasingly remote goals, driven to new discoveries by the Exploration Imperative. Those goals include Mars.
This we must make much clearer in our outreach to the public, the politicians, the "opinion leaders," and the media. But nothing in the space program, not even conquering gravity itself, has proven more difficult than this bridge-building. The most ingenious creations of humanity all too frequently cannot be recognized in their true event character and portent. Often they do not appear particularly remarkable, and many people blithely accept the extraordinary quite rapidly. They objectivize it falsely and fail to understand the conceptual jump of consciousness and comprehension called for by the new situation.
We are well on our way into the 21st Century, having left behind us a century that has led us through unimaginable evolutionary highs and lows into the present with all its planet-shaking horrors but also miracles, giving us a taste of the future rushing toward us at breakneck speed. In this third millennium facing us we will reach a new crossroads of evolution where we either evolve into the universe or devolve ourselves off the stage, out of existence. In order to prevail and continue to grow, we are even now engaged in the process to construct, half instinctively, our greatest creation: a humankind out of humans - to be our transcendental body and our consciousness. A single human cannot fly to the stars -- but humankind will be able to do it, just as on Earth it already has transcended the limits of space, time and death set for the individual human. Should the purpose of our existence have been accomplished already with today's beginning? Nonsense! For humans, space offers the greatest chance to develop more, to achieve their best.
We consist of elements which originated from exploding stars, cooked in cosmic super-kitchens. From the amoeba and single-cell microbes through the fishes and land animals to homo sapiens was a long road, but it was only a short span in the evolutionary plan of creation. Why stop now? Creation's process is still going on, to continue for a long time, but with the appearance and mobilization of mind, an essential part of it has now been turned over to humans as carriers of the action. The development of this mind took even less time - only a moment. How can anyone in their right mind believe in all earnestness that we are, or even possess, wisdom's last word?
Human spaceflight, after 50 years of stubborn development, shows perspectives for the future, gives vicarious life to visions. Who else but the youth of today should be vitally interested, for sheer existential reason, in the current and future problems of society and in possible approaches for their solutions? How can we older folks presume to dissuade and disenchant young people, yes even foreclose future alternatives to them who, when the time has come for it, will undoubtedly be able to develop and apply them to the benefit of future generations?
Thus, for me human spaceflight is foremost an ethical undertaking, even an ethical obligation. Because contrary to public opinion it is not technological development which drives it, but rather our immanent desire for expanding our regime of existence that drives spaceflight technology. The reality of that desire and the fact that it is deeply seated in the core of human substance are proven by the myths and archetypes of our history: They invariably depict expansion of the existential sphere as being the prerequisite of expansion of human consciousness. We are driven to establish new frontiers for the sole purpose of learning from their exploration how to expand them further. This thesis represents the intuitive/emotive-ethical aspect of human spaceflight. The fact that along the way spaceflight creates a wealth of pragmatic results for science, the environment or national economics, such as jobs, is its consequential ethical aspect, but all this is really only the effect and not by itself the motivation of our activity. We must understand the process as a part of human evolutionary dynamics in which spaceflight, besides its obvious practical applications, should also be recognized for what it truly is: an adventure of the classical "treasure hunt" and motivated by the hunger of humans to see their spirit reflected in their actions and to more comprehensively perceive the larger evolutionary advances and breakthroughs of their species.
The motor of this change of consciousness in our time can be the International Space Station, our residence in space in the coming decades, and the next logical step will take us to Mars. Our aims are set for the Red Planet, and we are already outward bound.