Since I was little more than knee high to a grass hopper I’ve been fascinated both with science fiction as well as science fact. In part, I can thank my dad for that. He loves Sci Fi and he made sure I got a good dose of it whilst growing up. One thing I distinctly remember is him taking me to see “Return of the Jedi” in the cinema in Aberdeen. That’s one childhood event I’ll never forget. Thanks to this passion for Sci Fi, space exploration has always held a special place in my heart.
We have come to a point in our evolution and technological advancement were we’re now capable of throwing off our Earthly bonds and taking our rightful place amongst the stars. While we took our first baby steps with the moon landings in the late 60s and early 70s, it seems we have faltered. While robotic missions have continued with much success, human space travel has been limited to low Earth orbit. The much dreamt about moon bases and space stations haven’t really materialised. Yes, we now have the ISS, but that’s nothing more than a damp squib in comparison to the dreams of the 60s and 70s. In the last few years things have got worse with Nasa retiring its Shuttle fleet, although there does appear to be renewed interest in going to Mars.
But, you may ask, why should we bother with space exploration? Wouldn’t it be better to sort out our problems here rather than wasting time, money and resources going to another planet? Possibly yes, but if you look at the broader picture, it becomes clear that we must and should send people out into the heavens.
All Your Eggs in One Basket?
Earth is our home, our birth place and our mother. However she is vulnerable. 65 million years ago the dinosaurs were masters of this world, but they vanished with hardly a whimper. The common theory is that they were wiped out by a huge meteor which hit the Yucatan Peninsula and blanketed the Earth in a nuclear winter. This cataclysmic event can and will happen again. The meteor which crashed down in Russia recently was a reminder of this – that was relatively small, yet look at the damage it caused. If we don’t set up colonies on other planets and moons we are destined to be hit by an extinction level event much as the dinosaurs were. In a recent interview, Stephen Hawking went so far as to say that humanity will not survive another 1,000 years on Earth – if we remain here we face certain extinction!
Robots Are Limited
One cannot ignore the success robotic missions have had. However, these machines are limited and take much longer than humans do to carry out tasks. For example, Nasa’s most recent rover, Curiosity, has been on Mars for almost a year. While the work it has done and the discoveries it has made are invaluable, it would have taken a human only a few days to carry out the same sort of work. Humans have the flexibility, durability and intelligence to adapt to new scenarios and situations. Robots invariably have to “write back home”, wait for instructions and twiddle their fingers in the meantime.
Many people feel that space exploration is nothing but a financial burden with no returns. This is a very skewed and blinkered view on space exploration. Many of the technologies we take for granted today came about thanks to space exploration. Ear thermometers, cordless tools and long distance communications are just a few. As we continue to explore space we will need to invent new technologies, better systems and more advanced methods of getting things done. All these will have direct benefits for people “back home”.
There is a wealth of minerals and other natural resources both on other planets as well as comets and asteroids. Once we discover a way to economically mine and extract them, the returns are bound to be plentiful. Earth’s population has reached approximately 6 billion. How much more can it support? The human population will continue to grow and Earth’s finite resources are being stretched to the limit. Out there, however, resources are virtually limitless and, as humanity grows, we’ll need them. The alternative would be to strip Earth bare – obviously not an option we can consider.
The Urge to Explore
I could go on all day about all the reasons why we should continue and push forward with space exploration. There are disadvantages and risks, but these are greatly outweighed by the benefits we can reap. Above all the reasons I’ve given though, there is one fundamental reason why we must take this plunge. It is our nature to explore and discover. To ask the question “Why?”. Much as in the past we set out to discover new lands such as the Americas, we must venture forth into the cosmos. To deny this is to deny our humanity, our nature, our very essence. We grow and evolve through our discoveries and the time is right for the next great frontier to open. The next big step will be Mars. The first steps are already being taken with extensive robotic exploration. I eagerly await the first manned missions to the red planet and am very hopeful this will happen within the next 10 to 20 years.
Gene Roddenberry summed it up best when he said “Why our space program? Why, indeed, did we trouble to look past the next mountain? Our prime obligation to ourselves is to make the unknown known. We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are.“