December 14, 2011
There is a type of social deviate who doesn’t fit in, and who naturally seeks the freedom of the wilderness. The American frontier was settled by that kind of spirit. Ironically, the wilderness of space requires a high degree of social conformity before you are allowed to enter, so today’s pre-selection of candidate explorers effectively requires a different personality type from those who historically ventured into the frontier.
Exploration by individuals or small groups dates from the Stone Age, and is principally responsible for humanity’s infestation of the entire globe. It is undirected and seemingly random, and social progress is achieved more by accident than by design. This is exploration in its purest form—exploration to satisfy human curiosity, in a constant search for new places to live and resources to use. To partake in this kind of exploration is simple: You just go.
Another type of exploration is more organized, and is done by countries and governments. Historically such explorations were made for exploitation: the taking of natural resources, the control of key geographic regions, and eventually, colonization. Exploration was a wealth-creating enterprise that, if consistently pursued over decades, returned orders of magnitude on the initial investment. This kind of exploration is no longer possible on Earth.
Society-sponsored exploration has therefore shifted from exploitation to knowledge acquisition. We explore today for science, for new knowledge that will tickle our imaginations and enrich our minds. This exploration is well planned and conducted by professional explorers selected in part for their ability to conform. At the same time, exploration has shifted from a wealth-generating activity to a wealth-consuming activity.
One aspect of this gentler age of exploration is the difficulty in maintaining a consistent level of effort over a period long enough to make progress. Meaningful exploration on today’s frontier requires about ten years, sometimes more, of consistently directed effort before significant scientific returns are seen. The shift from wealth generation (exploitation) to wealth consumption (knowledge) creates a constant battle for justification of the investment.
As space technology advances, we will reach the point where we started in the Stone Age: Exploration with no more justification than individual curiosity. Such an eventuality will open the Petri dish of Earth and allow this infestation called humanity to contaminate our solar system.