“It’s the climate, stupid.”
That’s the overall impression I was left with, after disagreeing with someone about the importance of space exploration. I had an unfortunate round with this person on social media a short time ago, over whether or not humans should continue with space exploration since climate change was the greater concern for our species. So great, or so this person thought, that endeavors such as space exploration were a waste of time and resources. Resources that could be better ‘spent’ elsewhere.
What a short-sighted, ignorant, pessimistic stance.
I disagreed with this person’s sentiment on so many levels, that I felt the need to write this essay. To have such a conversation in the 21st century seems ludicrous, as such criticism ignores one of the key tools that has allowed us to detect and monitor climate change: satellites in orbit, placed there by space agencies. Satellites that exist because of space exploration, and all the many periphery disciplines that make it possible. Yet there are others out there who feel the same way; any time a space agency launches a mission, there’s usually criticism directed at it on social media. If that mission isn’t a success, then that criticism is multiplied many times over.
It’s easy to look at the price tag of planetary probes, planned missions to the Moon, or even distant Mars, and compare the cost of these things to the problems we face here on Earth. The climate crisis, COVID-19, the growing economic divide between rich and poor, social issues such as racism, crumbling infrastructure, fascist terrorism, and gun violence — and that’s just in my home country, the United States. I care about these issues, too, and I am in firm agreement that we need to focus on them like never before.
But that doesn’t mean you stop learning. It doesn’t mean you stop exploring, and reaching for new heights of human achievement. Space exploration is the tip of that proverbial spear, and thus its prime mover. Dispensing with it would be folly.
Item # 1: The Cost
The financial cost of space exploration is a main point of contention from its critics, and the easiest to refute. The New Horizons probe that flew past Pluto in 2015 cost $780.6 million (source: The Planetary Society). That’s a hefty sum for the average person, and most of humanity alive today; many of us will never be millionaires, let alone billionaires. So a huge number like that attracts negative comments. To anyone paying attention, $780 million is a paltry sum when compared to things that cost far more, and contribute far less, to our civilization, such as:
Military Spending — In 2019 the United States spent $732 billion on national defense (source: Wikipedia). That’s more than the next ten countries combined. That’s nearly 1,000 times the cost of the New Horizons mission. Sure, we need to protect ourselves. But we’re not at war. There’s nothing to justify such a massive budget strictly for the military. The F-22 Raptor, a plane so expensive that the Air Force canceled its production, costs $334 each (source: Military Machine). So for a little more than the cost of two F-22s, which we obviously don’t need, we learned about one of our solar system’s most distant objects, adding to our corpus of knowledge in priceless ways. Now we know that Pluto might have a subsurface ocean — and where there’s liquid, there might be life as we understand it. I’ll take that any day over yet another fighter aircraft.
Oil Subsidies — The United States pays out over $20 billion annually to oil companies in subsidies (source: Generation180.org). Yet one oil company, Exxon, generated $181 billion in revenue during 2020 (source: Biz Journals). That’s just one company of many. I’m not going to bother enumerating how much other fossil fuel companies made in that time. Suffice it to say, there is absolutely no need to subsidize a corporation that generates that much revenue. It’s ridiculous, shameful, and a true waste of funds. By comparison, Mars Curiosity, a rover that even now carries out its mission on the Red Planet, cost taxpayers $2.5 billion (source: Investopedia). Its mission was only meant to last two years, and has now continued for over a decade — a great return on its investment. It has added immeasurably to our knowledge about Mars by any scientific standard. Subsidies to oil companies haven’t accomplished anything but enrich those who are already wealthy. Exxon isn’t a struggling business that requires federal money to prop it up. It’s an insanely profitable enterprise.
Tax Cuts — The tax cuts that the Trump administration put forward in 2017 totaled $1.5 trillion, and mostly benefited the wealthy. In fact, for the first time history, the wealthiest paid a lower tax rate that the poorest (source: The Guardian). $1.5 trillion. Try to imagine that number. If you were to count 1 integer per second, nonstop, 24 hours a day, it would take you almost 32,000 years to count to a trillion. People who were already wealthy did not need that tax cut. That money could have reinvigorated our educational system, provided better health care, and yes, allowed for more space exploration.
I could list other examples of fiscal excess, but these three are the most egregious, and serve as rebuttals to the criticism that space exploration is a ‘waste of money’. Take the Hubble Space telescope. Since its launch in 1990, its cost to build, launch, and maintain totals around $10 billion (source: Wikipedia). Hubble has expanded humanity’s knowledge of the universe perhaps more than any other tool or instrument invented. Its benefit to science, and to our species in general, is incalculable. It is priceless. We literally looked back in time, at distant galaxies, via its lens for a mere $10 billion. The cost of one F-22 could have purchased thirty-three Hubble Space Telescopes. Imagine how much more we would know, with that many instruments.
So it isn’t about the cost. It’s about what we should be spending all that money on rather than weapons of war, subsidies for profitable corporations, and tax cuts for those who are wealthier than the majority of people on this planet. There’s education, health care, measures to deal with climate change such as renewable energy, and the sciences. That includes space exploration.
Item #2: Climate Change
Here’s what started the aforementioned disagreement, that in turn inspired this essay. Climate change is the existential threat our species faces, and we are dealing with its effects right now, not in some distant future. It is real, and while I do my best to remain optimistic that we will meet its challenges, it is not a foolish optimism. Many species will still go extinct no matter what we do at this point; many ecosystems will be wrecked and even wiped out by the cumulative effects of global warming. Even the most positive predictions are dire. We have soiled the planet, and thus ourselves. Dealing with this self-inflicted wound will take incredible social and political will, as well as the best science we can bring to bear on it. That includes the tools we already have in space.
Satellites — They greatly aid our ability to detect and monitor the effects of climate change. Without them, we would be approaching this crisis like someone walking into a dark room without benefit of a light. They allow us to measure sea surface temperatures, forest fires, sea ice extent, global vegetation analysis, volcanic eruptions, and other phenomena. They ‘improve the Nation’s resilience to climate variability’ (source: NOAA). NASA is a prime mover in this arena, and we owe them a great deal when it comes to our understanding of climate change (source: NASA).
Ecological Impact — Sending rockets into Low Earth Orbit and beyond uses fossil fuels. There’s no way around that at the moment, unfortunately. There’s also the side effect of debris pollution, such as when a rocket explodes and rains wreckage over wetlands and beaches that typically surround launching sites. A SpaceX rocket has the same carbon footprint as flying 341 people across the Atlantic Ocean for a one-way flight (source: Treehugger). Yes, that is a lot. But how many rockets are getting launched per year, versus how many commercial airline flights depart daily, all across the world? Or compared to how many automobiles belch out carbon dioxide from their exhaust pipes, every single day, across the globe? There’s no comparison. SpaceX launched 26 missions in 2020 (source: Space.com). There were 16.4 million commercial flights, worldwide, in 2020. That’s due to COVID-19; the previous year, 2019, had 38.9 million commercial flights worldwide (source: Statista.com). Like I said: no comparison. I’m not going to bother mentioning automobile pollution, since that’s even greater, and I have made my point. The carbon footprint of space exploration is exponentially less than any method of terrestrial travel that uses fossil fuels. That’s not to say that we should ignore the problem, but the much larger issue is the carbon footprint left by automobiles, and that is something that can be alleviated much sooner than creating another fuel source for rockets. For example, the electric Chevrolet Bolt will produce 189 grams of carbon dioxide for every mile driven, while a gasoline-fueled Toyota Camry will produce 385 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. A new Ford F-150 pickup truck will produce 636 grams of carbon dioxide per mile (source: The New York Times). So space exploration has an almost negligible carbon footprint in comparison to how millions of people travel on this planet every day.
Item #3: Discovery and Human Endeavor
I won’t be quoting or linking to sources here; this is strictly my opinion.
Humanity likely would not exist were it not for our curious natures. If our ancestors in Earth’s pre-history had not braved new lands, forded freezing rivers, traversed great deserts, and sailed over the oceans, I doubt we would have evolved much past Stone Age societies. We would have stagnated, interbred, and finally died out from internecine warfare, plagues, or natural disasters. Look to the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island, and their fate. Humanity cannot survive long in a single, isolated location. If we are to endure as a species, we will have to settle other worlds, or at the very least, artificial habitats in orbit.
It’s apparent now that most space exploration will be via probes and drones. The romantic ideal of humans braving the void in grandiose starships will likely remain a fantasy — unless our understanding of physics increases beyond current levels. I don’t expect to see that in my lifetime. The Curiosity rover on Mars is a great example of how a machine can serve as an extension of our civilization on a world 140 million miles away. It’s a start. The grander idea of terraforming another world is ludicrous, however, since we have done a terrible job at managing our own. We are unlikely to reach another star system, at least with human voyagers. I’m a science fiction author, so I entertain such concepts in my work. Yet in reality, most of them are pipe dreams. That’s still a poor excuse to stop exploring.
I’m not going to live forever, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give up everything and stop living today.
But the psychological need to stretch our boundaries remains. Before Yuri Gagarin breached that veil separating Earth from the firmament, people only dreamed of humans reaching space. People used to dream about flying, too, until the Wright Brothers came along. This psychological need will never change as long as humans are around. Maybe it’s wired into our genes, an interstellar need to spread our DNA across the cosmos so that we will survive, like seeds carried on the wind that might take root elsewhere. Given the threat of asteroids and other natural disasters, it seems foolish to inhabit only one planet. Of course, we are far from establishing a permanent, sustainable colony on the Moon or Mars — but that doesn’t make it impossible.
The psychological impact of Gagarin’s flight, then Armstrong’s footsteps on the Moon, changed how we saw ourselves as a species. It showed that the heavens were no longer the domain of gods, but a frontier within mortal reach, if we but try. I don’t know if humans will ever live for long periods on Mars or other worlds, but if there’s a chance, then it might as well be a certainty.
We cannot stop trying. We cannot stop learning. We must not cease exploration, because that is surely the path to extinction — first of our minds, then our culture, and finally, our civilization. No one can predict how well we will deal with climate change, or even if we’ll survive it, according to the direst predictions. But abandoning space is a sure path to extinguishing ourselves.
I have a simple motto: if you’re not learning, then you’re dying. I have high hopes for our species, even in the face of great social strife, a pandemic, and the looming shadow of ecological catastrophe. We’ve already taken one small step into the void. Let’s continue making giant leaps across that darkness, until we find light.