Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey


The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate?

Mars Rock Et-Then taken October 29, 2012 by NASA's Curiosity Rover

Mars Rock Et-Then, Oct. 29, 2012 by NASA's Curiosity Rover

I wish organizations that provide public lectures had the courage to venture into more controversial realms. Too often they provide public education, which is great, but stick to the vanilla topics that will inspire interest, not dissension. They claim "new ideas," but insure that the ideas are either topics that will not weave any discord, or are presented in such a way to insure minimal disagreement or contention. What can we do  to evolve these public learning and sharing events to include more critical questioning and debate? - processes that move us forward as individuals and communities.

One of my friends posted on Facebook recently: "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows - Sydney J. Harris"

Would that were true! Frequently education is no more than mirrors.  And distorted ones at that.

I am a huge fan of public lectures. It is a great way to remain socially engaged and to participate in continued education / lifelong learning. Some of the lectures I attend regularly are the science ones at Pasadena's Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, the Skeptics Society (hosted at Caltech) and Zocola Public Square. These lectures are sometimes fascinating, but often leave me with an unsatisfied sense. Because while they are informative they seldom raise the questions that need to be raised, seldom demand that the public think and debate and get involved with our path forward.

I think of Susan B. Anthony traveling our early nation in most uncomfortable ways, sans first class airplane seats or "comfort" inns. I think of her throwing out the heretical idea that women should have the vote - and equality. I think of the people who came out to support her and to learn the arguments they could later use in their own community debates on the topic. I think of the people who came out to jeer her; to prevent her ideas from getting any traction. Susan B. Anthony presented public debates on the topic she was most passionate about for the duration of her life. And died eleven years before women did get the vote. Her lectures were controversial. Her lectures served to stir the public and move them forward.

Yes, the Skeptics Society does have their  'God v. Science' lecture / debate each year. But that topic is so tired. What if we were to approach all lectures as debates?

Recently I attended a Zocola lecture at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles about the future of space exploration. Talk about a topic ripe for debate, for public input and deliberation. But, for the most part, we simply heard life-story tidbits, and traditional "what we learned in space that we are now using on earth" tales from three panelists as they were questioned by a moderator who had given each of their bios a cursory study.

Let's encourage moderators to get at the big questions rather than to serve as PR buddies to panelists and the organizations they represent. These public lecture organizations are bringing together some of the most interesting people in our societies, these are rare opportunities to venture where no men (or women) have gone before! Let's quit missing opportunities to make these public events change agent systems that are needed to move the world forward in positive ways, rather than preaching to the choir, safe, fancy bottled water and beer sipping social gatherings.

The Zocola panelists for the space lecture were: John Vilja, vice president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Louis Friedman, Planetary Society co-founder , and Bobak Ferdowsi, flight director of the Curiosity rover (also known as “NASA Mohawk Guy”). When asked by moderator, Jia-Rui Chong Cook, media representative for the outer solar system at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, where we should explore next, Friedman thought that Mars is the most important planet, but Ferdowsi and Vilja think that Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, is where we should go. The fundamental reason all three thought we should continue space exploration is that we need to search for life out there.

Okay, so what could be controversial about that? The takeaway from the evening's event was seemingly not controversial. We need to look for life, and we may have to choose between Mars and Europa. Ho hum.

Do we need to look for life? What will we do if we find it? Do we need political systems set up to deal with extraterrestrial life discoveries? Are there systems set up that the public does not know about, or are we, in typical political manner, waiting for a crisis to strike before we plan for it? What about the difference between scientists ideas of "life" - i.e. bacteria - and the public's - i.e. two-headed tall green guys?

What if the evening's discussion had instead evolved to the costs of exploring those two places, and the science that may be left unexplored if we spend our time and money on sending missions to one or both of those places? Could we explore them as effectively with other methods than sending billion dollar vehicles, like the well-branded "Curiosity" to them? Perhaps a panelist not representing NASA might have helped the panel to raise more questions in need of public deliberation. Freeman Dyson comes to mind.

And how about this? A few weeks ago I interviewed a retired NASA Ames Mars scientist who told me we already know everything about Mars that the newest Mars vehicle and mission is going to "discover." Is this true? If so, then why are we wasting our money and precious human time and expertise on this mission rather than some other? If not, shouldn't the public be informed about what the true value is of this exploration? If there is a true value, then doesn't the public need to be debating the relatively puny amount of money spent on NASA v. the astronomical amount spent on the Pentagon?

Next: my interview with NASA Ames scientist.


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