Note: This page was written in 1996. I'll make updates one day.
The various space programs around the world are costing billions of dollars every year. What point does this serve? How can we justify the expense when people are going hungry?
In answer to the economic question, I think we need to first put
things in perspective. The cost of the space program not only pales into insignificance
when compared to the cost of producing weapons for our armies, it also amounts
to a fraction of the money we spend on such things as Hollywood movies, fast food
wrapping, beauty products, wasted electricity... the list goes on. We complain
about a billion-dollar shuttle programme, whilst at the same time spending 10
billion dollars on lottery tickets.
It's also worth noting that the US aerospace industry generates an annual export profit of $30 billion 1. So the American budget-watchers certainly can't complain.
Space exploration is an easy target - it's expensive, and it's benefits aren't immediately obvious. However, the benefits are real and worth paying for. It's all about our future - in fact it's one of the few large-scale programmes we have which is dedicated to our long-term future.
I think the many reasons for having a space program can be summarised into three areas...
There are several reasons why we need space exploration to survive.
Firstly, we know that at some stage in the future our Sun will die. If we haven't left town by then, we'll die with it. There's not much urgency for this one since it probably won't happen for around four billion years or so, but what if something unexpected did go wrong with the Sun? What if sunflare activity suddenly increased to the point of being seriously destructive? Since it hasn't happened any time recently we can say that it probably won't happen any time soon. But if it did, we'd be stuffed.
there's the more immediate threat of a cosmic collision - a comet or other space
body impacting the Earth. This is something that does happen, and on a relatively
regular basis. An impact almost certainly wiped out the Dinosaurs. An impact caused
massive destruction in Russia early this century. A few years ago, a comet impacted
Jupiter - if it had hit the Earth instead, it would have reduced our planet to
Common opinion is that someone like NASA will come to our rescue, but at the moment this isn't true. We are totally defenceless. We can't send nuclear missiles into space to destroy asteroids or comets (for a number of reasons), and we have no other developed strategy. We must do something about this danger.
Finally, we need the space program to sort out our environmental
problems back on Earth. In theory we could do this without going into space, but
it would be much more difficult.
Satellites have revealed problems such as deforestation, atmospheric ill-health and ozone depletion. Without satellites (and spacecraft to maintain them) we would be unaware of these issues and have no effective way to monitor them.
Spaceflight also motivates us to develop self-contained systems (i.e. absolutely environmentally friendly). Spacecraft life support systems require an environment with virtually no pollution or waste. A great deal of research goes into developing such systems, which can then be applied to our Earthly environment. The ideal situation would be a colony on the Moon or Mars, since it would be desirable for any such settlement to be 100% self-sufficient. Humans are perfectly capable of learning how to exist without destroying their environment - a project like this would force us to do it.
On one hand I think we have to be very careful about using "personal convenience" as a motivation to do anything. In fact, I have quite an issue with pointless "convenience products" (see "Shop 'Till We Drop" in the 5 Cents room). On the other hand, if something is going to make life easier or more efficient at no cost to the environment, then by all means let's run with it.
There are so many benefits to our everyday lives which are a direct result of the space program that it's not possible to list them. From teflon frying pans to personal computers, from weather forecasts to heart monitors. The routine events which take place on board the Space Shuttles don't attract much media attention, but they are creating technologies, medicines and procedures which impact significantly on our lives.
To me, this is the most important reason of all (even more than survival - something I'll go into some other time). Humans have an incredible capacity to learn. Not just as individuals, but as a species. Every single generation passes new information and wisdom to it's successor. We now have the knowledge (albeit with very questionable wisdom) to consciously affect our own evolution.
Is Human progress simply the "survival of the fittest" theory at work?.Assuming that we do survive, and reach a point at which there's no danger of Human extinction, what happens next? What further purpose does progress serve, if we're already assured of survival?
years ago, we believed that only God could understand how the Sun shines.
100 years ago, we believed that only God could know how the age of the Universe.
In the 1990s, we assume that only God can know why we exist.
There's so much that we don't understand, but there's so much that we do. We've taken on knowledge that we used to think was never to be ours. Tens of thousands of years of history are arguing that we will continue to develop such new understandings.
Where do we go from here? What is the next step in gaining new insights into our existence? The search for answers has taken us from trees to caves to boats to planes to spaceships. On each step of the journey, as we have expanded our horizons, we have learned more about where we fit in.
For most of our history, we believed that we were at the centre of the Universe. That belief went hand in hand with our attitudes and religious ideas - we weren't just at the centre of everything, we were the centre of everything. We believed that everything in existence was provided for our benefit. The realisation that the Earth is just another planet has allowed us to mature beyond that misunderstanding (something we're still working on centuries later).
To learn about ourselves, we must learn about our environment.
Things that are happening at the other end of the universe are not just curiosities to amuse a bunch of middle-aged star-gazers with no lives. They're as relevant to us as what's happening to the ozone layer, or the local water supply, or to our immune systems. Maybe not as immediately, but it's all part of the one system - none of it exists independently, and none of it can be separated. Certainly we need to be learning more about our local environment (the Earth), and how to survive as part of it. But the wider universal environment, whilst being less urgent, is just as important.
The Truth Is Out There.
1. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/qanda/why_nasa.htm (1999)