Don’t touch anything!

Today was another gym day, and a gym day means another podcast. This time, it was the turn of The Rest is History, a history podcast presented by Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland. The episode I had on today was the third in a four part series about Christopher Columbus. As is usual with the podcasts I listen to, I have learned a lot on a topic I thought I already knew a far amount about.

One thing is clear from this series, Columbus was a complex individual with virtues and flaws in abundance. I suspect most modern readers consider the flaws outweigh the virtues (and interestingly some contemporaries reached the very same conclusion) with his impact on indigenous peoples and communities at the top of the charge sheet.

There is no doubt Columbus acted in ways which were horrifying and inexcusable. At the same time, many of Columbus’s actions were either well-intentioned or entirely neutral acts, but still led to the suffering and death of vast numbers of people. Take the introduction of European diseases to an immunologically naïve population. I think we can be fairly certain Columbus did not intend to spread disease and kill untold numbers (the same cannot be said for everyone involved in the history of the Americas), but his actions led indirectly to those consequences.

Unexpected consequences have been present throughout the entire history of human migrations, expansions, colonisation and empire building. Whether we think of the people, flora or fauna already present in a land before new people arrived, the history of human expansion is littered with death and destruction. Like Columbus, much of this is likely to have been unintentional.

Justice for the Martians

Last year, I wrote a blog post about space exploration. In it, I reached the rather unexpected conclusion we should abandon human space flight. In that post, my argument was around the impact spaceflight has on us as people, going so far as to suggest it strips us of a part of our humanity. After listening to the podcast about Columbus, I find myself thinking again about space exploration and wonder whether a second reason is the impact we would have on space, either intentionally or not.

Clearly, we cannot be expected to think about and take account of all the consequences of our actions. Each of us makes countless decisions each day which given time and the randomness of life could lead to very unexpected consequences a day, a week or potentially years down the line. The more influential a person, the more likely these decisions will have a big outcome.

Some decisions are a little easier to predict the outcome of. Human space exploration is one of them. Without humans in space, the outcome should be fairly obvious, space will tick along nicely, finding its own, potentially evolutionary if life exists out there, path. Allow humanity to dive feet first into unknown planetary systems, and the consequences could be disastrous.

Imagine for example a world without life but with the potential for it. Send a human there, with the biological baggage humans come with, and the native potential life does not stand a chance. It will be much the same with primitive life, and even advanced ecosystems like Earth could well be devastated by our arrival. Of course it could always work out well, humanity and other life could even thrive, but is that a risk we as a species should be taking?


In my previous post I spoke about my support for continuing non-human exploration in space, and I think my position still stands. Understanding the Universe as best we can is a laudable goal, and being in space is part of that. The problem for us in this post, even robots in space present a risk.

For one, we can never be sure our equipment will be completely sterile. Even in the vacuum of space, some life from Earth has been known to survive. Every time we send a probe or satellite or robot into space, we are potentially infecting more of space with Earth-life.

There is also no telling what the impact of discovering a human satellite could have on a sentient species who for example has no concept of aliens from other planets. There is a scene at the start of the movie Star Trek Into Darkness where a less advanced society begins to worship the Enterprise after spotting it rising into space. While this is a movie, it is not impossible to imagine something like a human space rover being a source of fascination and/or fear if it is found by the local inhabitants trundling around their world.

Taking an absolutist ProGaian* stance, space programmes should be mothballed, with humanity limiting itself to airliners at most for getting off the ground. Any exploration of space would be strictly of an observational nature from terra firma.

On the other hand, the pragmatic ProGaian would note humanity already has tech in space and on other planets which we are not getting back. To continue exploring the Universe while keeping our feet firmly on the ground, we will need to use robotic proxies to do the hard work for us. I think I sit very much in the pragmatic camp at the moment, but I am open to persuasion from any absolutists out there.

To boldly stay here…

I have argued now for the abandonment of human space flight to protect our humanity, and to avoid making a mess of the rest of the Universe in much the same way we can make a mess here on Earth. With humans having planted a flag on the Moon already, when it comes to the not messing up space argument, it seems silly to exclude our nearest neighbour from future visits. It could be argued it can still be achieved with astronauts humanity intact (after all, the view of Earth from the Moon is supposed to be spectacular). Considering exploration further afield? It might just be time to park the ambition.

Edit 09/03/23: it looks like I am not the only person thinking about this topic. Clearly the revolution is growing…!
* Not sure I like the name I have come up with for my new movement which us definitely now a movement, but it's the best I can come up with at the moment so it will have to do. Any alternative suggestions gratefully received in the comments below.

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