Within the context of preparations for the Air and Space Academy’s conference on space exploration (May 2023), this short text underpins the session devoted to the fundamental question of: “Why explore?” Its sole purpose is to initiate reflection and encourage proposals for further study, considering exploration not from a scientific and technical point of view – aspects dealt with in other sessions – but from a philosophical and anthropological angle. All these different avenues for reflection will be used to structure preliminary discussions and to enrich the content of the conference itself.
Space exploration of the solar system is radically different from astronomical observation, not because of the nature of its scientific goals but due to the means used: it is a question of “physically” going there, an ambiguous term that covers two different realities: that of sending automatic probes remotely controlled from Earth and that of sending human beings.
What are the profound motivations, in the anthropological sense, of this type of exploration which can be defined as involving a presence beyond the Earth’s orbit (but including the Moon).
Automated exploration, first and foremost, undoubtedly satisfies human curiosity, the driving force behind science. But it also adds an initial form of presence. Human exploration is more complex and ambiguous. Human space travel nourishes expectations, ambitions and dreams of a very particular nature. This leads us to question the imaginative force behind human exploration and its symbolic role in present and future civilisation.
Even the sending of automated probes is linked to “human spaceflight” at least symbolically. In the collective imagination, they either prefigure, assist or extend human action.
It is also worth distinguishing between the motivations of the decision-makers who make this exploration possible and of the men and women who choose to embody it.
Why send human beings into space when it costs so much? Why does the possible return to the Moon, and even more so the journey to Mars, despite their cost, give rise to a form of desire which, although not unanimous, is nonetheless broadly shared? Why do states set such store on these ventures: if prestige there is, where does it derive from?
Does it not come from the importance accorded to the presence of the body, as opposed to mere images, however beautiful? It would seem that everyone can identify with, and feel “represented” by, the adventures of a few astronauts. The strangeness fundamentally associated with this human adventure is that of the physical presence of a “similar being”, immersed in a totally exotic environment, making an extreme journey, and yet endowed with the same senses as any human being.
Is it a Promethean desire for conquest (the hope of exploiting possible resources) or rather a quest – or both, depending on the case? And if quest there is, what worldviews does it reflect and what can it contribute? What dreams – even childish dreams – does it embody? Aside from the space travel of a small number of “representatives”, is there (should there be?) an anthropological future for a kind of propagation of man into space (which space?) and how are current actions preparing for this, at least symbolically? What ethical dimensions are involved?
Such reflections cannot ignore either currently recognised physical limits, or the considerable constraints impacting any installation and, more so, any possible exploitation.
Furthermore, we have a duty to question the future of this double desire (for knowledge and presence). Can it be reconciled with pre-eminent “geo-anthropo-centric” environmental issues? Also, what will become of this concern to “project oneself” through the physical presence of another, when virtual reality will soon have made such progress that the illusion of walking on Mars will be complete and almost free for all to use?
These questions are not the sole prerogative of experts; they concern everyone, and everyone can provide answers. Nevertheless, in preparation for and during the AAE conference, they are worth being raised and explored in greater depth by philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists who are used to putting cultural and civilisational issues into perspective.