the Romanticist astronaut

Steven is a bit harsh on Brickmuppet, who was complaining that we haven’t escaped low-earth orbit in four decades, and how that represented a betrayal of our generation’s birthright. Steven argues that the past 40 years, dominated by unequivocally successful space probes throughout the solar system and (in the case of Voyager) beyond, have been anything but a betrayal, but I think Steven misses the point.

Steven is right, that the best way to do science is via unmanned probes. You can pack more sensors and bring back more data without the need to keep a human being alive – this is just the simple reality of biology, information theory, and physics. But the space program was only partly about science, it was also about something more primal, about something that is unique to the human animal, the need to explore and understand. That indefinable wanderlust has been the subject of artistic exploration as well as physical – I think it’s best captured by Romanticist art, in particular the famous painting The Wanderer (1818) by German artist Caspar David Friedrich:


I’ll leave the meta-analysis to Wikipedia but I think anyone will recognize a familiar emotion in this work – the same emotion that makes us receptive to 2001: a Space Odyssey, or Star Trek, or even Lord of the Rings. The space program was the ultimate expression of this wanderlust because it was real – the possibility existed that we might actually follow where our imaginations have lead. All of us wanted to be an astronaut, and most of us still do. Maybe our children will yet be, one day.

4 thoughts on “the Romanticist astronaut”

  1. Oh, I understand that urge entirely. I also think it’s unwise.

    There’s a place in science and engineering for romance, but romance should’t dominate over practicality. There may come a time when it makes sense to use humans for exploration, but for the time being machines are the right answer.

  2. i disagree, as you might expect – humans and only humans can do exploration, robots and only robots should be used for data collection. At some point, you need a thinking, reasoning human mind out there, not to run experiments but to actually get beyond the data and see whats there. For example we can send increasingly sophisticated rovers to Mars, but only a human team will be able to test the thesis that we can live there, by trying it – and seeing what goes wrong, and finding solutions accordingly (or, maybe even dying). Its teh difference between the petri dish and in vivo, its the difference between theoreticians and experimentalists. A robot is just a probe; all you get back is information. A human brings back experience. Thats not just romanticism but also supreme pragmatism.

    meanwhihle there arre those who argue yes someday we should go Out There but not today. today we have bigger fish to fry, etc. But theres a serious problem with that thnking, in that it is always true. The space race and moon shot took place during the Cold War and Vietnam; arguably those were more important things and the tens of billions spent on it would have bought N more tanks or M more missiles etc. And yet, using technology that is today 40 years obsolete, they did it anyway. We can and shoudl do better, and todays challenges are no greater than theirs were.

  3. I am not saying, and have never said, “never ever send humans there”. What I am saying is “Wait until it makes sense, and it doesn’t make sense now.”

    Not because we have bigger fish to fry, but because it’s really the best way to explore and gather data right now.

  4. This is not something that we will translate for you. We will not explain it to you. Not out of spite, but because it is something that you can only understand if you are one of us. You are welcome to join us. Otherwise, leave us alone.

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