Why Explore Space When The World Is So Messed Up?

The other day I was blabbing about how amazing it was that humans had landed a spacecraft on a comet and a friend said to me, “That’s cool and all, but why explore space at all, especially when our planet is so messed up?”

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sunset from ISS. photo courtesy of NASA.

This is a perfectly reasonable question. Even though for me the justification is second nature, I can completely understand why someone who doesn’t spend all their time thinking about space would be skeptical.

After all, what is the point? Why launch rockets into the void when our international adversaries want to launch rockets at us? Why put a woman on Mars if we can’t even elect a female president? Why settle other planets when ours is in danger of an impending doom?

I’d like to address these perfectly valid questions by presenting some valuable – if not essential – ways that space exploration contributes to the betterment of humanity and greatly improves the planet we all share.

What has space done for me lately?

Perhaps the most noticeable benefits of space exploration are the happy accidents. When scientists are tasked with solving the complex problems presented by exploring space they often end up inadvertently solving unrelated Earth-born problems too.

There is a robust history of innovations originally intended for use in space that have trickled down for use in other terrestrial applications. For instance, NASA has contributed immensely to the development of solar cells (because, you know, there are no outlets in space) and now, solar power is a driving force in Earth’s renewable energy future.

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solar array in Portland, OR

NASA is credited with inventing a ton of stuff, like cordless handheld power tools, cochlear implants, and one of my favorites, major improvements to water filtration technology. Limited water supply in space means that recycling H2O is extremely important. The technology used to remove water nastiness aboard spacecraft is now being applied to the needs of a billion people worldwide who don’t have reliable access to clean drinking water.

By solving the major problems associated with space exploration humans the world over benefit. If we can grow food on a completely artificial orbiting environment, I think we can grow food anywhere on Earth too. If we can solve the enormous problems associated with putting humans on another planet, who knows what unforeseen secondary problems we may solve along the way.

But our planet is so screwed up, aren’t we gonna just screw up the next one?

When the topic of multiplanetary settlement comes up, it’s easy to assume that we’ll charge into our new home disregarding the existing ecosystem or any potential inhabitants. We’ll change shit around so it works for us and in doing so we’ll make the same mistakes we’ve made for centuries on Earth.

Maybe! But what a fantastic opportunity to learn from our mistakes and do it right this time. To this day, we have no permanent settlements on any planet other than our own. As we begin to solidify plans to move out into the cosmos we have an enormous opportunity to make decisions that respect the world we’ll inhabit. We can do it right this time, if we choose to.  

But we’ll be abandoning our home. Earth still needs help!

One of the more frequent concerns is that focusing on other planets will distract attention from our own. The misconception here is that all outer space missions are solely about heading to the Moon for the sake of it or chasing comets just because we can. We think that space exploration is only about looking outward while Earth gets left behind to rot.

This isn’t true. Actually, a HUGE percentage of all missions are earth-observing, and thus, earth-improving. Thanks to space, scientific satellites are now looking at Earth from every angle, constantly monitoring its vital signs. Using the instruments we have orbiting our planet, data on climate change, deforestation, ocean temperature, and so much more are regularly collected and analyzed to help us better understand our home planet.

Right now, the CORAL mission is figuring out how climate change is actually affecting Earth’s reef systems. And the recently launched GOES-R satellite is set to revolutionize predicting dangerous weather patterns by providing higher resolution imaging at faster speeds than ever before.

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animation by Sean Weston

It’s also important to remember, protecting Earth and exploring space are not mutually exclusive activities. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We should have smart, dedicated teams of people focusing on as many global issues as possible, simultaneously. Concurrent problem solving assures steady progress is made in all fields and no one issue gets left too far behind. We can tackle world hunger while we explore the bottom of the ocean while we develop renewable energy sources while we search for planets outside of our solar system.

But it’s so hard (expensive)!

Of course it is. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Not doing things because they are hard leads to a complacent and bored population. Accomplishing what seems impossible has the ability to inspire people all over the world to tackle bigger and more complex problems.

President John F. Kennedy said it best when describing the Apollo missions to the Moon:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

The fact is, we don’t know what we don’t know. Exploration for the sake of learning new things is essential to human growth. It’s worth the financial investment. The day we stop learning is the day we stop growing, and the day we stop growing is the day we start to perish.

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It strengthens and creates new relationships with our neighbors

A major positive impact that has emerged from the global space effort over the last 70 years is regular, successful international collaboration. Russia routinely launches American astronauts to the International Space Station – arguably the greatest example of multi-country cooperation in human history.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is comprised of 23 member nations all contributing resources and talent to one cooperative space program and secondarily, ESA then collaborates with JAXA (The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), and so on.

Space exploration is one of the most positive combined efforts in the world. It’s a common interest among all nations. With so much perpetual international conflict it’s vital to be reminded that it is possible to get along with our friends and enemies alike when we’re pursuing shared goals.

It’s at our core as humans

Perhaps the most powerful reason for exploring the cosmos is that it is a fundamentally human pursuit. It is an extension of our need to understand where we came from – a journey we’ve been on ever since humans thought to look up and wonder. It is an expression of our desire to know where we are and what lies beyond our reach. Humanity’s appetite for exploration is insatiable. If there is a place we have not been, we must go there, just to see – just to know what more there is. In an ongoing quest for greater understanding, we are now physically wading out into the shallows of the cosmic ocean, hoping to learn a little more about who we are within.

The act of exploring space creates a net positive in our lives. It inspires us, provides for us, binds us and drives us all. Elon Musk put it best:

“We’re either going to become … a space-faring civilization or we’re gonna be stuck on one planet until some eventual extinction event. In order for me to be excited and inspired about the future, it’s gotta be the first option.”

I agree.