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Jun 28

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Why I’m not scared of the dark…

The Last Frontier is calling…with a silent and twinkling ringtone.

It's a collect call; will you accept the charges?

Many socio-cultural anthropologists I talk with frequently lament that there is no longer a frontier.  A hidden place, far from the known; where new and unique cultures and civilizations can still exist…

Thanks to cheap, fast, and widespread transportation, humanity has now spread all over the world, in a massive wave of pan-globalization.  Where once cultural and ethnic groups were isolated by their environment, they are now free to travel and mingle all over the Earth.  And they do…

And the instantaneous communication we now take for granted, has had a powerful homogenizing effect on our species.  In-spite of our religious wars, prejudices, and "ethnic cleansings," cultures all around our world are more similar now, then they have ever been in our entire existence.  In a few hundred years, it's possible that everyone will have the same language and culture; and I fear socio-cultural anthropology won't be very useful science anymore.  Yes, science; though some still disagree with that.

It's actually ironic, that after spending hundreds of years trying to suppress, erase, and forcible convert different cultures to  become more like our own; we now have a science devoted to studying and celebrating those rapidly vanishing differences.

But there is a place that is still dark, mysterious, and unknowable:

Space…

It truly is, the final frontier.

Only a noble few still look up at the heavens, squinting through huge telescopes perched on top of mountains, and orbiting high above in dark airless skies, trying to uncover it's ancient secrets.

We are so tiny and insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe around us.  It's not surprising that so many of us spend our whole lives staring at the ground.  It's solid, made of regular matter; and not dark, or anti-matter.  It comforts us; gives us a horizon…and a place to call home.

But this is a home we will soon outgrow; it is too much like a child's crib.  If we don't leave, our rapidly multiplying species will be trapped here on it, forever; crying in our own feces.

Many people say we should solve our problems on Earth, before we go into space.  I'm not the only one who thinks that's a bad idea.  And according to Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today, we are hardly spending anything at all on space exploration, compared to the rest of our federal budget: 

 

NASA’s annual budget for fiscal year 2009 is $17.2 billion. The proposed budget for FY 2010 would raise it to about $18.7 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but let’s put it in perspective. The US annual budget is almost $3 trillion and NASA’s cut of the US budget is less than 1%, which isn’t big enough to create even a single line on this pie chart.

US Federal Spending.  Credit: Wikipedia

 

A few other things to put NASA’s budget in perspective:

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin mentioned recently that US consumers spend more on pizza ($27 billion) than NASA’s budget. (Head nod to Ian O’Neill)

Miles O’Brien recently brought it to our attention that the amount of money Bernie Maddof scammed with his Ponzi scheme ($50 billion) is way bigger than NASA’s budget.

I'm not scared of the dark, and you shouldn't be either…

When I look up at the stars, I don't see twinkling balls of burning hydrogen.  I see the invisible worlds that orbit them.  Worlds perhaps like our own, or maybe impossibly different.

When I look up at the night sky, I wonder silently who else is looking up, billions of light years away.  I imagine them scanning space with their own telescopes, also wondering if they are the only intelligent life in the universe.

Sometimes, I wonder if they can see a pale blue dot.  And though I know it's unlikely, sometimes I wonder if they can see me waving hello…

Why space?

It's there.  And it's only fair to meet them halfway; life looks for life.  After all, when Columbus first arrived at the Bahamas, the natives rowed out to greet him and his ships.

Now it's our turn to put our best foot forward.  Will we idly sit and wait for an alien Columbus to discover us, and hope they are more like Native Americans, than our Western Society?  Or do we venture out, and meet them in the dark?

Greet them in the empty vastness of space, as fellow explorers?

Could there be horrors out there in deep space?  It's just as likely as there are wonders.  Danger, or treasure; discovering either one is better than being stubbornly oblivious to all possibilities…

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