One of the primary goals of Citizens in Space is to promote citizen space exploration. Therefore, it seems appropriate for us to define what we mean by space exploration.

There are some who argue there is no such thing as citizen space exploration. They say that only governments do space exploration. Private citizens merely do “space tourism.”

We don’t believe that argument is supportable, however. If government employees and private citizens are performing substantially similar activities, it makes little sense to say that one is “exploration” and the other “tourism.”

Others argue that space travel is not exploration unless it goes beyond Low Earth Orbit. That argument became popular a few years ago, as part of the political rhetoric surrounding the Bush Vision of Space Exploration. We do not believe that definition is supportable, either.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, to explore means 1) to investigate systematically, or 2) to search into or travel in for purposes of discovery.

When we talk about space exploration, it seems clear that definition 2 is more appropriate. Definition 1 is metaphorical rather than literal. If you investigate space in the astronomy section of your public library, are you exploring space? Not in any meaningful literal sense. No one would mistake that for actual space exploration any more than they’d mistake your investigations in the history section for time travel.

So, exploration means “travel for purposes of discovery.” This simple, elegant definition is the one used by Citizens in Space.

This definition says nothing about who is doing the exploring – whether a government employee or a private citizen. Nor does it place any limits on the purpose or type of discovery.

In 2005, the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy issued a statement saying, “Exploration without science is tourism.“ We respectfully disagree. Scientific discovery is important (we also have a goal of promoting citizen science), but it is not the only valid purpose for space exploration. Humans may explore space for a wide variety of purposes; the discoveries they make may be scientific, technological, commercial, military, political, religious, philosophical, historical, artistic, or personal.

With the development of low-cost spaceflight, we will soon be moving from age of scarcity (in which launches were rare and had to be rationed and hoarded) to an age of abundance. Not every exploratory mission is going to be about science. The AAS should not fear non-science missions, however, it should welcome them. Increasing the number of launches and missions will help drive down costs for all users, including scientists. That’s the reason why Citizens in Space is giving away 10 spaceflights and 100 payload spaces – we want to help drive down launch costs. We’re targeting citizen-science payloads because that’s where our interest lies, but we don’t regard other interests as any more or less valid than our own.

There’s also a school of thought that says near-Earth space has been completely explored and the only way to do space exploration is to go beyond Earth orbit. According to this school, exploration means being the first expedition to visit an unexplored region. This is sometimes called “Lewis and Clark exploration,” although that term is a misnomer. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not go where no man had gone before – it was visiting territory that had already been explored by American Indians as well as mountain men.

The number of people who have visited Low Earth Orbit is far smaller than the number of Indians who were actually living in (not just visiting) the territories explored by Lewis and Clark. There are still scientific discoveries to be made in Low Earth Orbit and suborbital space – and technological, commercial, military, political, religious, philosophical, artistic, and personal discoveries as well.

People still buy guidebooks like “Exploring the Pacific Northwest,” centuries after Lewis and Clark explored the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of people travel to the Pacific Northwest every year to make personal discoveries – and yes, even scientific discoveries; there’s no shortage of scientific laboratories in Washington and Oregon. After all this time, exploration of the Pacific Northwest is not not finished. It is hubris to suggest that exploration of near-Earth space is finished because it has been visited by only 500 humans over a period of 50 years.

We look forward to expeditions beyond Low Earth Orbit. Doing advanced, long-range exploration is important, and very exciting, but it is not the only valid form of space exploration. We should embrace space exploration in all its forms.

Finally, there is one other way the term “space exploration” is misused. Unmanned science missions are sometimes referred to as “unmanned space exploration.” Sorry, but this doesn’t fit our definition. Exploration is “travel for purposes of discovery.” Sitting in front of a television watching the Travel Channel is not exploration. Neither is sitting in front of a monitor in a mission-control room. Unmanned probes are important and lead to many scientific discoveries, but the person sitting at home and sending out probes isn’t engaged in travel. He’s performing remote reconnaissance.

This isn’t just nitpicking. It’s an important distinction because it gets at the essence of exploration, which is travel – in this case, space travel. We should continue the unmanned reconnaissance and science missions, by all means, but let’s justify them on their own merits. They are not a substitute for space travel anymore than television is a substitute for terrestrial travel.

Written by Astro1 on June 15th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

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