The Interplanetary Marshmallow Test

You can tell Elon Musk was probably the kind of kid who would have aced the Marshmallow Test. The test goes like this; put a small child and a marshmallow in a room. Tell the child they can eat the marshmallow now but if they wait they can have 2 marshmallows when you get back. Leave the room for 15 minutes. The children who wait – the ones who can forgo one marshmallow now for two later – generally tend to do better in life. That’s the idea anyway. The test’s conclusions are disputed but the ability to postpone instant gratification in favour of a long-term goal is certainly an important life skill – for a species as well as an individual.

Image: NASA

Leaving Earth and colonising space – whether that’s orbiting space habitats, the Moon, Mars or elsewhere – is, effectively, an interplanetary marshmallow test. A species that can look past short-terms costs to the long-term benefit wins. They win in the only way the Universe cares about – by staying alive. There’s no guarantee humans are that sort of species though. We’re evolutionarily designed to discount the future – a bird in the hand philosophy baked into our genes. Our main organisational institutions of commerce and government don’t exactly have a good reputation in the long term planning department. They inevitably focused on the short term – the next election, the next quarter’s results. That’s not to say the short term isn’t important. You can’t have a grand plan for the future if you’re turfed out of office in six months or bankrupt next year but even the average couple saving for their newborn’s university are light-years beyond the planning horizon of most government or corporate institutions when it comes to forethought. Whatever Elon Musk’s flaws are – and doubtless they are as great as any man’s – there is one important difference between his Space X and, say, Boeing. By ‘important’ here I mean making the difference between extinction and survival for the human race so I hope you don’t think I’m overselling it. Whereas a company like Boeing, by its nature, builds rockets to make money, Musk makes money to build rockets. He’s holding out for those interplanetary marshmallows. It’s just as well he is because building rockets – building a future for humanity in space – seems to be something NASA has given up on.

The Sizzle or the Steak

A hundred years before Columbus, the Chinese admiral Zheng He lead a huge exploratory fleet on seven voyages to India and along the coast of Africa for the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor. But emperors, like adminstrations, change. Further voyage were cancelled, the fleet rotted at harbour and China missed out on the great age of exploration. Post-Apollo, the US space program seems equally rudderless. It’s descended into a political, vote-garnering speech & photo opportunity where every few years the new guy cancels the old guy’s big space project to make way for his own. Politicians constantly selling the sizzle but never delivering the steak. NASA’s latest rocket – the Space Launch System – is years behind schedule, billions over budget and will be unfeasibly expensive to operate it ever does get off the ground. It replaced the cancelled Ares rocket, which was to get us back to the Moon by 2020. That, in turn, replaced the cancelled single-stage-to-orbit Venture Star space plane, which was supposed to replace the cancelled Space Shuttle. In the 9 years between Kennedy’s “we will go to the moon” speech in 1961 and Armstrong’s “one small step”, NASA and it’s contracting companies developed – almost from scratch – the largest rocket in the world (then or since), an interplanetary spaceship and a landing vehicle that brought men safely to the surface of another world. In the 9 years since the last Space Shuttle flight, NASA has developed… nothing. There has been one, brief, unmanned, test flight of an Orion crew module. Possibly there might be a crewed test launch in a couple of years. Or maybe four. Or maybe never if the SLS is, itself, cancelled. You can see how a cynical observer might conclude that without the ‘my-rocket-is-bigger-than-your-rocket’ Cold War impetus, manned spaceflight development is mainly about big paychecks for the aerospace industry as well as vote-securing aerospace jobs in every state. Any actual working hardware reaching orbit seems almost a liability. Rockets explode, people die and who needs that sort of bad publicity? Safer to keep selling that sizzle and avoid the potential disappointment of the steak. The thing is, we want the steak.

The Restless Few (million)

Our most popular works of fiction are about space travel and new worlds. In real life, crowds gathered to watch Space Shuttle takeoffs. People flocked to the middle-of-nowhere White Sands range 20 years ago just to watch the McDonald Douglas Delta Clipper prototype do a vertical takeoff test. Thousands stood up and goddamn cheered when Space X simultaneously landed two Falcon heavy boosters.

According to Napoleon, an army marches on its stomach. Perhaps so, but it dies for its flag. It’s the intangibles that inspire us – love, duty, honour, the hope of a better life. We work for our living but we strive and sacrifice and bleed for our dreams. Tesla has a market value equal to General Motors with a 20th of their earnings. Not because their cars are 20 time better but because Musk’s brand is selling a vision, a dream of a better future. It’s a dream made flesh though – or rather made steel. A dream you can see and touch and even buy – if you have a few thousand or a few million dollars anyway. It’s a dream that many people are willing to pay good money to have a slice of. What vision can a Boeing or a General Motors offer other than a fatter bottom line? That’s a laudable goal but only Scrooge McDuck would call it inspiring.

In a world of discovered countries, we yearn for that high frontier. Not everybody of course, but enough. The “restless few”, as Carl Sagan phrased it in Pale Blue Dot, “drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds”. When Sagan wrote those words a quarter of a century ago, genetics was barely in its infancy. Today we have a few clues as to what might be behind at least some of that craving. In ‘Behave’, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky speculates about just what makes explorers, well, explore. The DRD4 dopamine receptor gene has 25 variants naturally occurring in humans. The 7R variety is less responsive to dopamine and is associated with novelty seeking and impulsive behaviour but it has a fascinating correlation with expanding populations. It shows up in 10 to 25% of African, European and Middle Eastern populations. For the early humans who explored further – Native Americans and Maya – the incidence is 40%. The descendants of the Ticuna, Surui and Karitian peoples who made it all the way to the Amazon basin have a 70% incidence of the R7 gene.

Without a frontier the gene manifests itself in negative ways – violence, crime, alcoholism and all sorts of high-risk behaviors. It may even eventually eliminate itself from static societies entirely – who wants to marry an alcoholic with poor impulse control? But with a frontier? Oh, with a frontier this dissatisfaction gene pushes us into the unknown with an unstoppable force – across seas and deserts and mountains, through jungle and over ice with the horizon our only guide. With a new frontier it can take us much, much further – to the Moon and Mars and endless new worlds strewn across the heavens.

Of course, correlation isn’t necessarily causation and maybe it’s something else that draws us onwards and upwards but draw it does. No matter how many disappointments we face, we gather up our failures, sweep away the ashes and build new dreams in their place. The carrot of new horizons draws us onward but if the carrot isn’t enough, there’s always the stick.

 Evolution in Action

Exploring the Moon or Mars and beyond is expensive and dangerous. Colonizing is vastly more so and may take anywhere from decades to millennia with no obvious pay-offs. If our robot probes can take the pictures and do the science why bother? Why not spend the money here on the environment or alleviating poverty or whatever your hobbyhorse of choice is? Valid arguments in themselves but missing the big picture. Putting humans in space isn’t about exploration, or national pride, it isn’t even about science. It’s about survival. To paraphrase Larry Niven; “There are things so terrible that the only defence against them is not to be there when they happen”. If we stay here, just here on this one world, we will become extinct. Killed off by evolution’s dispassionate hand just like every other species lost in the past. Unlike every other species we have so much more to lose. Every word of Shakespeare, every brick of the Taj Mahal, every brush stroke of the Mona Lisa, every note of the 1812 Overture. Every sacrifice will have been for nothing. Every lesson so painfully learned, wasted. Every light guttered out.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. If we can see beyond the short term costs to the long term gains – holding out for those two marshmallows – we can spread to other worlds and survive. We can take our friends too – as digitally encoded strings of DNA if we have to. Tigers can stalk the jungles of the Tharsis Rise, whales sing in the ocean habitats of Tau Ceti and humans, or something better that remembers being human, can thrive as long as the stars shine.

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