Do we really need a space program?


Copyright Bonestell Space Art, used with permission

From time to time, I hear friends, politicians, even comedians I like dismiss the need for a space program. The most common argument against space exploration is “why bother?” Opponents argue that earth-based telescopes (radio and visual), along with a few orbitable telescope platforms should be more than enough for the eggheads to get their fix. Further, don’t we have a moral obligation to spend those considerable resources of NASA on social programs or the homeland security? Wouldn’t that be both more practical and more profitable use of our time and money?

At the heart of the argument against space exploration is a profound terrestial provencialism that places Earth not only at the center of the universe, but reduces the worth of the universe to only what can be found on this tilted, flattened 6 sextillion ton mudball, currently the third planet from a middle-aged star that floats (for now) in the outer edge of an arm of a spiral (barred?) galaxy that’s part of a supercluster of galaxies for which we don’t even have a good name yet (n.b. Local Group is a label that fails to stimulate the blood).

There are a number of utilitarian arguments I could employ in defense of space exploration. It’s true that as we destroy our habitat through “livin’ large” that learning to live in a hostile environment might be useful. It’s true that space exploration has already generated new, practical technologies we use every day. It’s also true that federal money spent on the space program goes into the pockets of American private business (just like military spending, but with a smaller body count). But all these important reasons don’t really matter to me that much. There is a vastly more important reason to Look Up.

A government must protect its citizens. We can debate about what that means and what policies are appropriate towards that goal. But I also believe that a government can do more than just the bare minimum. Together government and private industries can work to do something quite remarkable: change the very character of humanity. Of all government programs, only space exploration can do this.

No doubt you’ll think this claim grandiose. How can space exploration change us as a species? Discounting genetic mutations induced by poorly shielded astronauts, the change I’m referring to is one of perspective. Humans have, throughout history, considered the universe only in their own local contexts. The result has been fierce territorial warfare, social dominance hierarchies and rather merger plans for the future.

Humans, though related to every other terrestrial animal, is uniquely gifted with the capacity to change our behavior and our thinking. Further, we are increasingly unfettered by the primary mechanism that shapes all other life on this planet: natural selection. Unlike every other lifeform that we know about, we can decide our destiny.

As the late Carl Sagan pointed out many times, we are made of starstuff. Every atom on this planet Earth was born in star that exploded in the murky depths of time. This isn’t mythology. This isn’t belief. It is, as much as anything in science can be called such, fact and a most remarkable one at that. In that some of those same atoms compose each of us today, we can be considered sentient starstuff. Which is a romantic way of saying we are part of this universe as much as any black hole, sun, or quasar. We are the descendants of those awesome, irradiating engines of gravity. Shouldn’t we consider getting to know our roots, in the largest sense of the term? How can we really know ourselves without understanding where we came from?

The probability is that we will one day find that life has arisen separately on some other world and I suspect, despite some superficial differences, that this alien life will be much the same as we. It will be life based on some replicating set of amino acids (perhaps even the same acids). It will have a desire to feed. It will have a desire to procreate. No matter if what we find is a microbe or a giant balloon predator, it will broadly conform to life as we know it. I hope I live to see that glorious day when we learn aren’t alone or special or unique. That hubris has been exploited by religious and political leaders of this planet for far too long.

If an appeal to cosmic geneology isn’t sufficient to pursuade you of the importance of the space program, allow me to put a fine point on our pitiful, parochial understanding of the universe in which we live. Most humans walk at the speed of about 5 km per hour. The Earth’s diameter at the equator is about 12,700 km. Using simple math, it would take the average human 2,540 hours to walk that distance (if he could). That’s well over three months of walking non-stop with no sleeping. The nearest non-earth, non-manufactured thing in space, the Moon, is about 383,000 km away. That’s 30 times the diameter of the Earth. If you could walk to the Moon, it would take you 7 years of continuous walking (in a space suit) to get there. Our closest neighbor after the Moon is Mars, which, at its closest, is 54,500,000 km away. I won’t bother putting that distance in walking terms.

The careful reader will notice that each of the distances cited differ in orders of magnitude, even in the context of our closest neighbors in the Solar System. Space is vast and we have little hope of exploring it all, but to stop exploring it at now or to do so anemically seems to be the height of solipsistic folly. If we are the only self-aware creatures the universe has created, we have the moral obligation to understand this creation to the best of our ability.

In 10,000 years of organized human civilization, only the very last decades have seen a few, brief day trips to our closest neighbor. In 10,000 years of human civilization, we have yet to explore the entire planet beneath our feet (although, thanks to space travel, we finally have reliable maps of it).

Achieving a hi-tech culture on Earth isn’t the end of our voyage. It’s the beginning. Although triremes opened the seas to exploration, travel and trade to our ancestors, those ancient ships weren’t the end of the story; nor were the ocean going Galleys of the Age of Discovery; nor are the primative sub-orbital rockets of today. The story of discovery continues.

The change in humanity induced by routine space travel that I referred to at the beginning of this essay could be as profound as evolving sentience. The questions posed by space exploration challenge the very context of how we perceive ourselves. You cannot look down on Earth from space and perceive nations, religions, genders or races. There is only Earth and from a distance, it looks just like one of many, many planets in the community we call the Universe.

Which is why I included the Bonestell painting at the top of this article. With all the local noise, it’s easy to get distracted from the Big Picture.