By Ian Barry
In the wake of Curiosity landing on Mars last month, I’ve heard a particular sentiment from a few places. “Why are we spending money to go into space? That’s money that could be better spent on starving children/our troops/homeless animals with big watery eyes, et cetera.’” First off, just because there are other worthy endeavors out there doesn’t make any particular one invalid. Secondly, the long-term benefits of space exploration have the potential to help a lot more people and improve the world much more than any short-term investment in food and charity.
If you’re concerned only with the bottom line, you’ll be happy to know that space exploration stimulates a great deal of innovation. A large number of disparate technologies started out as NASA research projects: Scratch-resistant lenses, longer-lasting tires, improved firefighting equipment, memory foam, freeze-dried food, solar panels, water purification systems, and so forth. There’s a full database at spinoff.nasa.gov. Sure, they’re not showy, but our lives are that much better for the benefits of so many accumulated technological discoveries. Not to mention those that could be developed in the future. Extraplanetary colonies? You’ll need renewable sources of energy, efficient and dynamic fabrication technologies, high-density energy storage, and advanced food production methods. Asteroid mining, advanced space suits, narrow AI; all these technologies and more would need to be developed in aid of human space exploration, but their applications are hardly limited to that field.
If you don’t care about the bottom line, think about this: space is the great project. It’s not an American project, or a Russian project, or a Chinese project. It’s a human project. It’s an endeavor for our whole species to undertake, ever since the first hominid looked up at the stars and wondered what’s out there. It embodies all the greatest qualities of our species: curiosity, discovery, intellect. Without the explorers, the researchers, we would never have circled the globe, or discovered bacteria or the atom or the laws of electricity. Without those brave humans willing to stare into the unknown, we will never step out of our cradle. Because that’s what Earth is: the cradle of our fledgling species. When we can learn to put aside petty and self-imposed differences: nation, culture and ideology, then we’ll finally be able to take those first few shaky steps as a species, not as a fractious bunch of nations. We have two options: we escape our cradle, or we die here.
Why should we be spending money to escape Earth’s gravity? If curiosity and progress of the human species doesn’t move you, then how about its survival? One extinction event would be all it takes to end the human lineage. The only known intelligent life in our galactic neighborhood, the only fountain of information of love, art, science, and everything else that makes us human, wiped out. Forever. Asteroids, gamma-ray bursts, supervolcanoes, global warming, ecological decimation, a plague, nuclear war, or rampaging nanotech – any one of these could push humanity over the precipice towards extinction.
You’ll notice that more than half of these are man-made. There are five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and the human species is developing more and more quickly towards the to cause the sixth. We have all our eggs in one cosmic basket: if something happens to Earth, we all die with it. If we diffuse out into the solar system, the human species’ chance of survival goes up dramatically in the long term.
So there you have it. Innovation, discovery, and survival. If these reasons don’t convince you that we should spend more money on space exploration, well, I only have a page to work with. But Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it better than I ever could: “How much would you pay for the universe?”