What Are We Doing In Space ?


Here is the text of my talk [at Starmus]… at least this is what I intended to say !

What Are Starmus Brian May “What Are We Doing In Space?” 22 June 2011


Starmus 22 June 2011

Important: Copyright material

I could be perhaps perceived as an ideal contributor to this STARMUS conference, since I carry credentials from both music and Astronomy. But in this company I feel very humbled. My qualification as an astronomer is an Astrophysics PhD from Imperial College, on the Motions of Interplanetary Dust, and my credentials as a musician are 40 years recording and touring the world as a member of the rock group Queen, and as a solo artist. As an astronomer, I could very easily speak to you in depth and with confidence on the motions of Interplanetary Dust. As a musician, I could speak to you with some authority on what it’s like to play an A chord at 10,000 watts in Wembley Stadium. But the subject I’ve chosen to speak on today, and the subject that Garik asked me to speak on – because it’s something we have spoken about many times over the years I’ve known him, is a subject I cannot approach with confidence. I approach it with some trepidation, because I cannot be an expert in this area. But also because I feel the weight of worry that what I’m contributing may sound negative, and almost ungrateful, in the company of our brilliant guests, men who have trod the moon and space. Some of what I have to say is speculative, and I hope that our astronauts will be able to put me straight later on and tell me in which parts of my thesis I’m talking out of my hat.

I stand before you today, to address you neither as a musician nor as a scientist, but as a Human Being.

It will be entirely non-technical. I suppose I have an unusual viewpoint, albeit not quite as unusual as our esteemed guest astronauts here, but because I have glimpsed the world from the extremes of the environments of pure art and pure science, and I’ve seen quite a lot of this world.

I’ve been absolutely enchanted by the talks at this conference. Enchanted, stimulated, astounded – because the speakers have all been able to answer so many questions about what we know about the Universe we live in. But I won’t be answering questions in this talk.

It has been amazing for me to meet the astronauts and learn from them how much they share this concern … how much they care for the planet … for the animals … for mankind, a mankind not split into fragments.

My mission here today is purely to frame a question. It’s a question I do not intend to answer, but I hope to stimulate some discussion among the assembled company – most of you here are not only at the pinnacle of current thought, but influential in the world at large.

My Question is simple:


There is more than one shade of meaning in this apparently simple enquiry. On the surface is the purely factual question of what is currently happening in the Human Race’s exploration of the space around our planet, – which has largely been answered already in this great conference – and very exciting it is too.

But my enquiry extends deeper to the question of what our motives truly are, in our further exploration, and ultimately to whether the motives on which we are acting stand up beside our picture of the Human Race in the context of the Universe as a whole. In other words, to cut to the chase: now that the door to the conquest of Space has been opened by brilliant scientists and engineers, and brave explorers, is the rest of the Mankind ready, or indeed worthy, to walk through that door?

And … if we walk through, in bulk … what will we take into Space?

How did this begin? Amazingly it is half a century since Man first ventured outside the thin layer of life-giving atmosphere which surrounds our blue planet. In the 1950s and 60s we saw two powerful nations, the USA, and what was then called the USSR, who were in a state of so-called ‘Cold War’ with each other, both pumping money and human ingenuity into building space rockets to take Man into space. The first steps were very much like Jules Verne’s projectile – a capsule shot into near Space, and then allowed to follow its natural parabolic trajectory, in free fall, back to Earth. It was ascertained that a man could survive in the near vacuum of Space using microcosmic support systems inside metal containers, the first manned space vehicles, and even outside the capsules in the first space suits – our venerable guest ALEXEI LEONOV proved this by his personal courage.

So now it was clear that Humans could journey into Space.

What ensued was a Space Race … a rush to be the first nation to put a human foot on the Moon. Why? Was it in the spirit of exploration, of discovery, or pure human curiosity? Yes, all of these. We know that the two men behind American and Russian initiatives, Von BRAUN and KOROLOEV had dreamed of a moon landing all their lives. But if human curiosity was the only motive, why did the two nations not collaborate? What wonderful way to mend bridges it might have been … to work on such a noble project hand in hand. But of course they didn’t. Why? Because the whole subtext of this endeavour was, just as it had been 40 years earlier for Von Braun in Germany, making V2 rockets to Bomb London – Military. (In Russia KOROLOEV was doing the same job.) The dreams were there, shared by the astronauts, the engineers, the astronomers, who worked on this project. But why did it get the billions of dollars it needed in funding, to make it happen?

Well, I don’t think we can avoid the thought that it was because of quite different reasons. Not only did the conquest of the Moon look like it could give superior spying power, and fire power for the nation who got there first, but the prestige, the bravado, the impression of military might, would surely frighten all nations into submission. The power behind the two National efforts was – in fact – military. I must stress that, by ‘military’, I do not mean that this was the idea of the armed forces. No – what I’m referring to is the military aspirations of politicians, which have to be carried out by armed forces who are often all too aware of the flaws in the reasoning of the politicians.

From then on, one wonders what happened to the motivation – the power. Yes, there were more moon landings – 12 people have walked upon our Moon. But we are now 50 years on, and does it not seem incredible that the huge momentum of that time did NOT translate into a colonization of the Moon by now, half a century later?

Those 50 years have seen thousand-fold leaps in expertise, computer technology, the birth of the Internet – how come this outreach into space stalled? Buzz told us in his address to us that after the clear objective of the first moon landing had been achieved, it became harder to be clear about the objective, and harder to keep the support for the continuing exploration going. Yes – that must be so. But it’s tempting to also theorise that the political ‘powers-that-be’ did not see any immediate advantage in pursuing this path any further. They turned their eyes in other directions. And they were actually quite open about it. Kennedy spoke of Man’s ambition to explore the cosmos in the pursuit of pure knowledge – but the word Star Wars was coined to describe the ambitions of the development of unmanned weaponry in Space instigated by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980 – the Strategic Defence Initiative. And meanwhile, the mighty Saturn rockets no longer roared, and the Moon was left alone.

I can only guess, but I look at a recent failure of an application to study Zodiacal Dust to secure funds of about 10,000 pounds to make further studies of its motions, and contrast it with the roughly 330 million dollars that were allocated for NASA to hit Comet Tempel 1 with a projectile, and please don’t tell me that military considerations have nothing to do with the decision making process. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the scientists who pulled off this feat, but how jolly for the politicians to be able to demonstrate to the world that the USA can hit a target at 100 million miles!

The prime motivation for much of the money allocated to space exploration is evidently still tied up with the military, and with political power. …

If it’s true, are we happy with that? Does that make it the right kind of motivation?

IS THIS WHAT WE WILL TAKE INTO SPACE – through that door – into the future?

Do we take Military ambition? Do we take we take Economic ambition? Politics, economics, and the military seem always to conspire. Do we take the greed and selfishness of big business into Space? Will we rejoice, when we get off the lunar shuttle, in seeing a McDonalds sign? Kentucky Fried Chicken ? Gucci, L’Oreal, Hedge Funds, Insurance brokers?


But what else do we take into Space? Well, probably a continuation of our present behaviour – right?

We need new lands, do we? The Earth is no longer big enough for us? Right? So, briefly … shall we look at the damage we have done already to our own beautiful planet … a planet uniquely perfectly suited to our needs, and the needs of all the creatures who, as Richard Dawkins has reminded us, each at the pinnacle of their evolutionary path, worthily share the Earth with us. Looking at our planet from afar … it looks so peaceful, clean, gentle, unsullied. It evolved over millions of years, with its flora and fauna, its delicate balance of emergent LIFE. But this paradise, this Eden, is not showing us the hurt it has endured, in the mere couple of hundred years since Man became all-powerful. It’s hard to imagine, now, what the Earth was like, just 300 years ago, before we covered it with roads, concrete and fast food chains.

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