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The thought of humans on Mars is a prospect that fires up the imagination. And yet, some people aren't convinced we should even make the journey to the Red Planet.
How can we justify spending billions to go to Mars, and beyond, with all of the problems we have here on Earth? Shouldn't we deal with Earth's issues first before creating an extraterrestrial colony?
These questions are common when it comes to discussing expensive space projects. As the far-reaching exploration of the cosmos becomes more realistic every day with the work being done by NASA, SpaceX, Blue Horizon, and many other companies, we take a look at why we should be heading out there in the first place.
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1. Riches await amongst the stars
With private businesses taking us to space, and huge debate over how much of the U.S.'s annual budget should go to NASA, it goes without saying that there has to be some kind of financial imperative for going to space — and there certainly may be one.
Our solar system has seen what may be an asteroid filled with gold, and a number of companies want to mine this asteriod and others like it for its resources within ten years.
Organizations such as NASA are already planning for a future in which asteroid mining will have an enormous impact on our economy.
2. We should never legislate what frontier gets breached next
Neil deGrasse Tyson, famed astrophysicist, is a vocal champion for space exploration. In the StarTalk video below, he states his case by claiming that, “we should never legislate what frontier gets breached next.”
Why is that? Well, we simply can never fully know what's on the other side of a frontier, and how the discovery will benefit humanity. A look back at our history up to this point is proof of that.
NASA’s then-associate director of science, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, gave a great example back in 1970. A Zambia-based nun sent him a letter asking how the organization could justify the billions being spent on space programs with the good that money could do for poverty-stricken people on Earth.
Stuhlinger expressed his admiration for her “compassionate heart” before replying with a story: 400 years ago, when people were suffering from the plague, the German government's investment in the gradual development of glass lenses was protested for its wastefulness. What did this lead to? The creation of the microscope, a giant leap for medicine.
Exploration and scientific advancement present financial risk and real danger to the people undertaking it. But they also hold out the hope of unimaginable rewards, Tyson explains.
3. Space tech comes back down to Earth
Technology developed for space might be incredibly expensive, but the benefits come back down to Earth. GPS technology, for example, which is connected to practically every smartphone today, allowing people to find their way, was originally developed for space.
As NASA explains: "GPS has its origins in the Sputnik era when scientists were able to track the satellite with shifts in its radio signal, known as the 'Doppler Effect,' which became the foundational idea for modern GPS."
Technology developed for use in space has also found uses in detecting Alzheimer's, revolutionizing solar power and even fighting bank fraud.
On top of this, space tech is also being developed to make space travel cheaper. One example is NASA and SpaceX's collaboration to make tech that will allow spacecraft to refuel in space.
4. Planet B and the excluded middle argument
Once again, the cost argument. Reaching Mars would need substantial government backing – estimates say it could cost around $450 billion to reach the Red Planet. When children are starving and millions are homeless how can we justify spending those amounts?
As Carl Sagan, the famous science popularizer, explains, this is an excluded middle argument. This means that a middle ground, in which both outcomes are possible, is completely disregarded.
According to Sagen's arguement, there is enough wealth on planet A (Earth) to take us to planet B (Mars) as well as tackling the problems of poverty and hunger.
To illustrate this point, let's look at the U.S.'s recent expenditure on NASA. In 2020, the government is proposing a top-line expenditure on NASA of $22.6 billion. Another $15 billion or so is spent on military space programs. Yet this is only a small portion of the total U.S. budget - around 0.5%.
5. We are explorers by nature
Human beings are naturally inclined to explore and to push the boundaries of what is known. A testament to this is not only our plans to go to Mars and beyond with SpaceX and NASA's Project Artemis, but also the development of space tourism, which aims to one day democratize space travel.
While companies like Virgin are looking to eventually charge an astronomical £250,000 for flying in its commercial craft, companies like Barcelona's Zero 2 Infinity, are aiming to make space travel more affordable, by sending people up in a space balloon, called Bloon.
All of this suggests the willingness of the average person to explore space. On this topic, Carl Sagan once said: “human beings are a curious, inquisitive, exploratory species. I think that has been the secret of our success as a species.”
Our ancestors explored the world, acquired new knowledge, and thrived because of it. And now, as Sagan says, “we have committed ourselves to space, and I do not think that we are about to turn back.”
Still, investment is needed. “Space is difficult,” Virgin's Richard Branson explains, “it is rocket science.”
If we turn our backs on it now, what cosmic discoveries will be lost forever?