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Share Your Story • Greg Young • July 10, 2019

The Future of Deep Space Exploration - A Mission to the Stars

The history of space exploration has been accelerating ever since Galileo developed his first telescope, pointed it toward the stars some four centuries ago, and published his findings in a small book titled Sidereus Nuncius, "The Starry Messenger”. Since then, new and ever-improving technology was invented, and enormously creative astronomers, astrophysicists and space scientists have learned and made exciting discoveries about our vast surroundings and the extraordinary place in which we live—space. While some devote important time to observe, learn, discover and understand those things in our comfort zone—the air we breathe here on Earth, the water we drink, the sounds we hear, the food we eat or the things we can see out our living room window—others devote their time reaching for the stars. And how we go about reaching for those stars is as important as the reach itself.

The choices of how to reach for the stars aren’t as simple as you first might imagine . . . yes, they are like “rocket science,” especially when that reach requires sending something or someone into deep space. Beyond the technological challenges, safety and the financial costs, there is the important human element when it comes to traveling in deep space—those things that titillate the human psyche and cause all of humanity to turn with interest and excitement to look at what extraordinary things another human being is doing or has done. Much like when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in July of 1969—and when Neil Armstrong expressed for all of us “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module and jumped to the Moon’s surface—now some 50 years ago.

At that moment most of us didn’t think about the financial costs, or the astronauts who sacrificed their lives to reach this point in history, or if we would make any new scientific discoveries. Instead, we experienced the extraordinary feelings of accomplishment and the enormous excitement of the moment. We found ourselves absorbed in the story, like reading a well-written book, where we become immersed in the characters, the amazing settings and the unfolding plot. The relevant question related to deep space exploration is how we will achieve this same experience and these same feelings and emotions while engaging with our mission to the stars—traveling enormous distances for many years. These feelings and emotions, created by accomplishing extraordinary feats, are what stimulate us to keep going—they ignite our dreams and inspire us to do more.

Our history of space exploration followed the path of many scientific discoveries. We began by using our own senses—looking at the stars with human eyes and squinting to see further. Then as our thirst for discovery drove us forward, we invented instruments to improve our sight—Galileo’s telescope, larger devices to enhance sensitivity and resolution, digital detectors with better light gathering power and unique sensitivity to observe ever-narrower components of light’s spectrum. In time we developed radio telescopes to allow us to see objects from a very different perspective and at ever greater distances. Along the way, no one could argue the benefit the Hubble Space Telescope provided in drawing humanity as a whole to the wonders of space. This extraordinary instrument captured multi-spectral images with a recreated beauty that surpassed much of our earth-bound experiences. Of course, we cannot discount the scientific value of these beautiful creations that expressed the presence of specific elements and compounds through their spectral signatures. But it was the unknown and our thirst for understanding and discovery that these alluring images engendered in the human mind that attracted the attention of millions—just like Neil Armstrong’s step onto the Moon.

Who can look at the image of Westerlund 2, a compact super star cluster in the Milky Way (shown below), and not be wowed by its captivating appearance and the breadth of its mystery as it calls to us to come and discover?

Westerlund 2

NASA, ESA & the Hubble Heritage Team

Westerlund 2

As the clock of progress kept ticking, the mind of man stretched even further as we reached into space with inventive instruments that were not fettered by Earth’s atmosphere or its magnetic field. There were advanced optical and electromagnetic sensors, gravity wave detectors, solar wind particle collectors and devices designed to reveal the ‘insides’ of what was outside our world. As we stretched further to investigate our near neighbors within our solar system, we sent spacecraft to visit our moon and our sister planets; to land, sense, explore, collect, and conduct experiments.

Most of these robotic efforts were pre-programmed or controlled from Earth with limited freedom for these systems to adjust themselves or change their mission parameters—they possessed only a finite amount of true autonomy in their design. But future missions will have greater and greater degrees of autonomy as our designed intelligences (my preferred name for these species-like beings of artificial intelligence (AI)), are created and sent into space—these beings with attributes more and more like human beings, able to execute our mission with almost complete autonomy as our astronauts do today.

Without autonomy, our Mars rovers must wait anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes to receive instructions from Earth depending on the orbital positions of Earth and Mars. As we go further, even to the outer planets, delays in one-way communication grow from several to many hours and double that while we await a response from a rover which will act on the instructions we are sending. When we extend beyond these planetary explorations and think about deep space missions, employment of designed intelligences rather than human travelers or semi-autonomous systems will become essential. We should be planning now for such missions and prototyping the level of intelligence and autonomous robotic functioning needed to ensure mission success.

It will be one thing for our designed intelligences to know what decisions to make on such missions but another to execute electro-mechanical repairs to degraded or failed systems, should they occur. Reasoning on unexpected circumstances or encountering unanticipated challenges will require our designed intelligences to make effective decisions based on intuition and understanding situations of an inexact nature. We will need to develop abstract reasoning and that reasoning must be local to the problem or situation faced in an almost unreachable platform deep in the cosmos. Time to act may be the difference between mission continuation and mission failure. We will no longer have the luxury to wait for word from mother Earth.

The technological hurtles of such long missions at unprecedented distances from Earth, including all the system architectural elements necessary for success—designed intelligence management & learning, sensor payload management, navigation & attitude control, propulsion, onboard power, communications, and thermal control—are, in themselves, huge and many as yet unresolved in practice, but how we maintain engagement with humanity carries, perhaps, the most critical and important challenge of all. How will we keep our American citizenry, or possibly the world, connected, engaged and excited by our mission to the stars?

One example in recent times can be drawn from the sustainment of the mission and funding of the Hubble Space Telescope. When NASA decided it would be too costly and dangerous to keep Hubble operational, there was an outpouring of support from across the globe. The argument to sustain it wasn’t driven only by the science or the technology or the astronauts that went there to fix it. Our citizenry was drawn to it because of the beauty of its imagery, for the mystery this product stirred in us, and by our innate desire to explore and discover something extraordinary in the setting of outer space that surrounds us. These images provoked questions about what is out there; they tickled our imaginations and triggered our curiosity and a desire to go there. To turn it off, to stop the flow of these tantalizing images of places we were exploring became unacceptable. And our mission to the stars must be like this as we begin the exploration of deep space. Its content must stimulate us to desire more, to keep exploring and discovering.

Our current space missions planned for the Moon and our neighboring planets are excellent scientific and economically driven undertakings. Many of them will result in progress that benefits long-duration spaceflight. But they lack the extraordinary reach that our mission to the stars provides. A reach that is like Galileo’s first look at the Moon through his telescope, the first images of Hubble’s Deep Field images, Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s monumental climb to the summit of Mount Everest, and the giant leap for mankind accomplished by Neil Armstrong when he first set foot on the Moon. A mission to the stars is the truly next giant leap for mankind.

The challenges in sustaining humanity’s interest in such a long-duration, deep space mission will require three key advances we don’t possess today. First, is the need to develop engaging designed intelligences who will execute the mission. For those who remember the Star Trek series character “Data”—the android who was described as sapient, sentient and anatomically fully functional—it is hard to deny that we viewed him as almost human. And in doing so we felt nearly the same emotions of excitement, empathy, humor and concern for the predicaments that befell this fascinating creation, just as we felt for the other human members of the cast. My only regret is that the producers of this epic series didn’t give him a female android to engage with. Imagine what that conversation would have been like! Hopefully we will have the opportunity to find out as we begin populating the Earth with our own Data-like designed intelligences. We will need this same form of engagement with those we design for our mission to the stars as we had with the fictional character, Data.

Second, we must develop continuous learning and evolving designed intelligences. We should think of using the leverage of this extraordinary mission to accelerate the learning of our designed intelligence crew, including the achievement of explainability of their decisions, imbuing them with the ability to understand why they feel the way they do or why they made the decisions they did. Rather than viewing them as stagnant non-learning beings, we need to recognize their need to evolve in knowledge, understanding and ability on this long journey into space. Upgrading their abstract reasoning and lifelong learning abilities as well as other elements of intelligence evolution during their lengthy journey to the stars will be essential.

Human lives change a great deal in just 10 years, and we need to provide our long-duration designed intelligence crew with creative, if only virtual changes, similar to those taking place in human families on earth; perhaps the creation of young designed intelligences on-board and how they learn as their life progresses; the effects of aging from the perspective of a designed intelligence; how these beings experience different challenges from humans, such as the desire for greater engagement, but without the impact of boredom on such a long journey; what they do for enjoyment; and how they will evolve from knowledge to wisdom. This transition from viewing our crew as computers with defined instruction sets, to beings that think for themselves, much like humans do, is as yet a major hurdle for us.

It is hard to imagine these beings the way we do humans, but this is a change in perspective that will be essential for century-long missions to succeed. Much like “Data”, our designed intelligences must function more and more like us. This is not only a mission to the stars; this is an opportunity to expand our understanding of how our designed intelligences will evolve during this journey. I participated in helping lead the efforts to field an autonomous ground vehicle many years ago. When we let it begin its journey, it was like letting go of a child’s hand as it drove off on its own . . . alone. It had to make its own decisions—to succeed or fail with the knowledge we gave it and what it learned on the voyage.

Third, we must develop the means to regularly communicate with the crew on our mission to the stars. When we are able to design and build the future generation of interstellar spacecraft engines (coupled with solar gravity assist) to accelerate ourselves to a velocity of 13,000 km/s (~67 times faster than our fastest space probe, the Parker Solar Probe), we can be circling the recently discovered (2016) exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, in the Alpha Centauri star system in a little under 100 years. While this is only 0.004% of the way across our galaxy, it will be remembered by generations to come as our journey of a lifetime.

100 years of travel will span five generations. Once we are underway, we will need to provide humanity the means to engage with this crew of sentient beings. Mechanisms must be established for the young and old, to ask questions of our spaceship occupants, virtually every day, through email, text messaging and voice mail. Such an engagement will give sustaining value to this extraordinary undertaking. For a trip lasting 36,500 days, thought must be given to the interesting aspects of the journey and the educational aspects of our mission to the stars that will last a century or more.

Imagine the opportunity to deliver an entire space travel curriculum taught to our children and our children’s children over many decades during this mission. We must expand on Jeff Bezos’ recent announcement of his Blue Moon lander and his plans to build a sustaining engagement—the “Club for the Future”—one where youngsters can dream, experiment and build. For a mission to the stars, we will need this same kind of exciting personal human engagement to stimulate a passion for the journey. No compelling mission of this duration has ever been developed and we should not discount the significant societal impact for generations of families to connect and engage, as our search for other beings in the universe evolves and children, parents, grandparents and great grandparents interact during our mission to the stars.

As our mission progresses further into deep space, the time delays become significant. After one month of travel it will take over two and a half days to transmit a message and receive a reply. After a year, it will take 30 days for roundtrip communications. After 25 years of travel, we will have to wait over two years to receive a reply to a question. But how exciting for a 12-year-old to receive the answer to her question posed to the crew of our mission to the stars when she was 10. All this assumes we have solved the problem of deep space RF/optical communications over many trillions of kilometers. Of course, there will be many ways to resolve this with bright minds thinking of inventive solutions. Just look at what we did for InSight’s Mars landing with the Mars Cube One satellites (MarCO).

Will we have the courage to undertake such an extraordinary mission into deep space? It would be our first visit to another star system; our first visit to another planetary system outside our solar system; and most importantly to engage generations in the fabulous and enormously stimulating world of space exploration and discovery as we search for other intelligences in the universe. We are lifting the human heart, stimulating those genetic features that drive us to reach for self-actualization—the culmination of achieving one’s lifelong desires—something only mankind is currently capable of doing.

Humanity needs deep space exploration perhaps more than we know or realize. As we become absorbed and mired in short-term issues and challenges here on Earth, seeing our differences more than our similarities, our individual weaknesses more than our combined strengths—we need that singular event that can pull us all up and out of the quagmire and lift our spirits to the stars.

Even while our distant ancestors sat around a campfire, cooking the meal of a wild animal and vegetables in front of their caves over 400,000 years ago, man looked up at the stars and dreamed, and probably would have asked himself—if only he had had the facility of language—"What is that up there?”

Do you think we will have the long-range aspiration and foresight that John Kennedy had in 1961 when he challenged us to place a man on the moon before the end of the current decade—an outcome likely not to occur during his presidency? It’s time to find out!

Greg Young is a Visionary member of the Planetary Society and a member of the New Millennium Committee. He is a writer of science fiction (writing as D.M. Rosewood at dmrosewood.com), an entrepreneur, a scientist, an executive, an explorer, an experimenter, and a dreamer of things to come. Like his early ancestors, he still looks up at the stars and asks the question “Who’s out there and how soon will we go to find them?”

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