[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]
An asteroid hits Earth. A human’s last words are: “we could have prevented this”. But nobody will remember those. As nobody will remember our wars and breakthroughs, our romances, your children, or anything you ever accomplished. Everything we ever did is, within hour, forever forgotten.
If you were walking on Mars, looking at a blue sunset or exploring territories nobody has stepped on before, you would probably not question the value of it. You would know and feel that you are doing the right thing. But as you are not, you may wonder whether Mars exploration, or the exploration of space in general, is worth it. You might think something I often hear: aren’t there problems to solve on Earth before going further? Wouldn’t our money be better spent here to benefit everyone, than wasted in space to please a minority? (Those are actually politically corrected versions of the sometimes hateful comments I usually hear; I know some kids are reading my posts).
If you think space programs are a waste of money, you are probably not very sensitive to the great scientific advances it leads to. You probably don’t care much about increasing our knowledge of the universe, fostering collaborations and forging agreements among countries, or attracting youth into careers in science and technology. You have probably succeeded in shutting down the strong drive for exploration which is wired into us, the same which led us to venture forth out of Africa and beyond. I will probably not convince you by telling you that, as a sense of purpose helps an individual to go through his life, humanity greatly benefit from highly stimulating objective. So, instead, below are more pragmatic things for you to consider.
First, our everyday life has been greatly enhanced by technological advances brought by space programs: GPS, weather prediction technologies, satellite television, large-scale environmental analyses, disaster prediction and monitoring, artificial hearts and other medical improvements, innovations in the automotive and home industries, land mine removal devices… Imagine your life without the technologies and knowledge derived from space exploration; I guess you can easily figure out things that you would be missing. And much more is expected: reliance on clean energies, breakthroughs in transport technologies, low gravity manufacturing, mining in space, increased knowledge of the universe, space tourism and stimulating challenge… As an example, some technologies developed for producing and recycling resources on Mars can be applied to deserts on Earth. Yes, money spent in space programs benefits Earth. Tremendously.
In the past 60 years, technologies were developed that we didn’t imagine before and would certainly not have expected in such a close future. Little in our history has been such a driving force for innovation. Wars, maybe. But whether space exploration objectives are preferable to military ones is left to your judgement.
If you are still concerned about wasting money in space, let me tell you this: no money has ever be spent in space. Money spent for developing space missions is spent on Earth to pay salaries and industries. But even if it was sent to space and burned by the Sun, it would be an investment. On the short term, monetary return comes from technologies derived from space exploration. On the longer term, mining in space would allow us to get resources from outside before we have taken everything Earth can offer. Describing the long-term economic benefits of colonizing new worlds and mining in space would be way too long for this blog post, but an interesting analogy can be made with colonization of America in the 17th century, or Australia in the 19th century. As Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, once wrote, thinking of money spent in space as a net loss for other concerns on Earth can be compared to misevaluations of the value of these settlements by European governments, which now appear as absurd. And, honestly: do you think that money taken from space programs would be dedicated to solving hunger? And is space exploration the first sector from which you would spare funds?
But the most urging motivation for developing space technologies is simple: preserving our species. I will not remind you of all the things that could eradicate us; media do a great job on this. I will just quote Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator: “[t]he history of life on Earth is the history of extinction events, and human expansion into the Solar System is, in the end, fundamentally about the survival of the species”. Developing space technologies can also allow us to preserve life on Earth for longer, by predicting and preventing threats. Becoming a multiplanetary species can save our species and knowledge when life is wiped out of the blue planet. But let’s face it: if you wait for all problems to be solved on Earth before thinking of going further, you will never do.
Sure, we can always delegate it to the next generation. Until there is no next generation.