Putting modern-day dressing on old arguments for
exploration may not be the most effective way to
advocate for a human presence in space.

Cargo cult exploration

by Dan Lester
Monday, January 21, 2013

As the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Spaceflight, mandated by the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, begins its task to establish the goals and value proposition for humans in space, it’s a good time to consider rationale in some detail. As pointed out by myself and University of Hartford exploration historian Michael Robinson (Space Policy 25, 236, 2009, and a Space News op-ed) several years ago, “exploration” is a highly malleable and somewhat ill-defined word that human spaceflight advocates tend to hide behind. The rationale for human spaceflight is self-evident, we are told, from the rich history of terrestrial exploration: the likes of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, for example. So the rationale for human spaceflight becomes entangled with a decidedly historical model for exploration. That’s a model that assumed, for very good reasons at the time, that learning about a place and even exercising control there depended on sending people. But our technology has carried us far beyond that model, such that the space exploration we’ve actually done, at sites well beyond the Moon, has been without people being physically present at those locations. We can now send some degree of human cognition and presence to our priority destinations without actually sending humans. Lewis and Clark couldn’t do that to theirs. Our military drone pilots now exercise perception and control remotely at their destinations in a way that historical assault forces could not.

The failure that comes from applying the historical model for exploration to human spaceflight is a bit sinister. Exploration is always considered an admirable pursuit: reaching beyond the next hill, and expanding consciousness about places never witnessed. But we can fall victim to a psychological trap. It’s one that reassures us about a pursuit when what we do follows the apparent precepts and historical forms of that pursuit, instead of seeking quantifiable sought-after results or even just organized outreach for serendipity. This brings up what I call cargo cult exploration.

Read more: The Space Review: Cargo cult exploration.

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