The space shift of the UK Government
by Michael Martin-Smith
The Government of the United Kingdom, in the past 3 weeks, has made two highly significant announcements for the new millennium. These do not, it is true, presage vast expenditure by the United Kingdom but are in their way of great philosophical importance and, like small acorns, carry enormous implications for our world view and future evolution as a civilization.
The first is the announcement by the British National Space Centre that it is to set up an office to co-ordinate research into Astrobiology. Astrobiology, the study of Life in a universal context, is already emerging as a major science of the new Age; it covers many areas of study ranging from the extreme survivability of life in Terrestrial environments such as the Ocean floor volcanic vent regions to the utterly arid icy wastes of Antarctica. From such work it is hoped to learn what factors allow the emergence and survival of Life on other planets. This work is paralleled by the ongoing search for planets orbiting other stars - some 30 have been found in the past 5 years. Exploration by space probes of Mars, the asteroids, Jupiter's moons, and in a few years Saturn and its mysterious moon Titan, continues despite the recent mishaps at Mars to provide baseline information on the chemistry and possible origins of life. Many scientists, we are learning, are carrying out work related to Astrobiology without fully understanding the larger picture opening up before us.
The focus of Astrobiology is shifting away from direct detection of "Aliens" to looking more broadly at the contexts in which life is to expected to form, develop and survive. The question of Life's survivability in Space itself will become a new element in astrobiology as humans move out into the International Space Station and face the logistical and biological challenges of a new environment, just as our marine ancestors once squared up to the colonization of hostile Terra Firma! More prosaically, the ability of life to survive sudden climatic and physical changes is of growing concern as global warming and new viral epidemics take hold of the popular consciousness. Britain and Europe along with Japan, the USA and, in time, China are preparing to add to the study of these and related questions, as the role of life in Space comes increasingly to bear on issues of managing our own ecosphere here.
The second announcement, on Jan 4 2000, by the UK Government was the initiation of a three man task force to look into, officially and seriously, the threat to Life and civilization from impacts by asteroids or comets. The three are Harry Atkinson, who has worked with the European space agency, the US agency Nasa and the cabinet office, Sir Crispin Tickell, chancellor of Kent university and a prominent environmentalist, and David Williams, professor at University College London. They are to study the question of impacts over the next few months and report to the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, later in the year.
The "giggle factor" so long associated by the UK government with this whole question is now behind us; it will be illogical, if not impossible, for Governments to resist the dynamic of these decisions which lead to stronger astronomical and space research programmes. These will be unmanned robots, at first, to study the asteroids in situ, but in due time, as the question of building human life insurance policies in Space becomes clear, so too will cheap and reliable space transportation become a logical necessity. At this stage there is no suggestion of asteroid deflection strategies or major expenditures; however, these two announcements represent a small but significant step towards a new philosophy for the Third Millennium which,. like it or not, will have enormous ultimate consequences - for they portend an eventual projection of human action and involvement beyond mere contemplation into regions far beyond our small blue planet.
They show official recognition of an idea which some, including myself, have propounded for over 20 years - that we live in a Cosmic, not a merely terrestrial ecology, and that the human future must be based on our further understanding of Space Life and hazards. This process, slow and halting at first, leads inevitably to an eventual Universal human civilization - for, as the old proverb has it "Trade follows the Flag!"
Spaceguard and Astrobiology are thus emerging as twin foci of 21st century astronomical and space research and development; and, let there be no doubt, this research, like all screening programmes, must lead to appropriate action to avoid disaster, or be useless. Better yet, we should exploit the Near Earth Objects to assist the construction of an indestructable dispersed and evolving human ecology in Space. To solve a problem is good - but to turn it to account and transcend it is truly human.
Our people and our rulers are coming slowly to accept that a continual and growing involvement by Humanity in astronomy and astronautics is not merely the province of progressive cultures, but a sine qua non of survival itself. Only misanthropes can now legitimately oppose human growth as a space-faring civilization. Fortune and evolution alike favour the Brave..
"Man belongs wherever a keen eye quick wits and a strong right arm can take Him!", or nowhere much at all.
Dr Michael Martin-Smith
Space Age Associates, http://www.astronist.demon.co.uk/index.html
Michael Martin-Smith, part of the TDF Board of Directors, is author of "Salto nello Spazio", released in Italy, Dec 1999. This work outlines for the interested layman the cosmic backdrop of Evolution, human affairs and the growing need to see the human condition in a Universal context as a prelude to a future of universal scope, as a route to transcending our current global problems. Present space activites are put into a global context and possible next steps in the extension of human society into space are described, with a look at possible longterm evolutionary potential for our species. It is now available in Italian bookshops for 28,000 liras. In case of difficulties, Ursula Mainardi<email@example.com> is the Marketing Director for the publishers Tre Editori, 35 via Principe Umberto, 00185 Roma