Modern Space Exploration: What You Should Know and Why You Should Support It

Recently it came to my attention that the US government was planning to decrease funding for NASA. While I was a little taken aback by this news, the decision itself was not what concerned me. The US may very well have good reason to cut its spending (although personally, I cringe whenever any kind of science/research funding is cut in any context) and there are plenty of governments and companies who would continue sending things into space even if the US slowed down. What concerned me was some of the opinions people had on space travel. I noticed that a lot of people view space exploration as a frivolous waste of resources, claiming that “we have enough problems down here” and space is just a distraction. I vehemently disagree. I believe space exploration is not only incredibly exciting but also of massive relevance to average people, whether that exploration is done by NASA or someone else.
Current Space Exploration
Image from Scientific American

SpaceX reusable rocket

To begin with, let’s talk about some of the exciting things that are going on in the space industry. With the deceleration of the space race in the decades following the moon landing, individuals from the private sector stepped in with their own ideas for picking it back up. Most famous of the lot is Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, which if you hadn’t heard is a service offering touristic trips to space. He’s currently succeeded at garnering millions from ticket sales to thrill-seeking celebrities and his aircrafts have already gone supersonic. Of similar fame is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Known for PayPal, Tesla Motors, SolarCity and most recently his audacious hyperloop idea, Musk is no less an amazing individual than Branson. He ultimately wants to colonize Mars but wanting to be practical, his main focus now is making rockets that are cheap and reusable. So far he’s succeeded at making a prototype of the reusable rocket and making SpaceX the first private company to resupply the international space station. Then there are the slightly crazier companies like Mars One which aims to launch and broadcast a Mars colonization mission by 2023, and Planetary Resources which wants to mine asteroids for resources. And of course NASA is ever-present in the field. Their primary focus seems to be Mars; after having discovered evidence it once was capable of supporting life and that life on earth may have actually come from Mars on an asteroid, they’re currently making plans to send more robots to study the matter.

Technologies Derived from Space Travel

Virgin Galactic

As you can see, the space age is far from dead. But how do any of these things help us? So a few rich people get joy-rides to space, what good does that do the rest of us? Well, their main objectives might be a little frivolous but the success of these ventures would bring benefits far beyond those objectives. Virgin Galactic may be selling tickets to the rich but the technology developed could mean planes that can exit the atmosphere, fly without air resistance slowing them down and re-enter. That means a commercial flight from London to Sydney could take as little as 4 hours, revolutionizing global transportation. The plan to mine asteroids might seem like an attempt by a group of  rich men to get even richer, but in doing so they would be helping solve the issue of resource scarcity. Unusually enough, the founders of Planetary Resources want to bring back platinum-group metals and lower the market price for them on earth. Currently, these metals cost $23,000 a pound and a reduction in their price would mean reduction in the price of medical devices and renewable energy products (among other products) that utilize them. Additionally, since the mining would require robotics technology that doesn’t yet exist, this project’s success would result in the development of that technology and consequently its use on earth in a variety of applications. And in the case of both of these companies, SpaceX’s work to make cheap, reusable rockets would complement their work and pave the way for other space-related business ideas to surface.

But that’s all quite speculative, what has space travel gained us so far? Well, while trying to make space travel possible, a lot of very tough engineering problems are encountered and the scientists and engineers working on them have to come up with creative and innovative solutions (if it costs billions to send another rocket you’d better be sure you’re going to think everything through very thoroughly). Much like the asteroid robots, these solutions can be applied to problems that affect everyone here on earth. This is a list of some of the most notable technologies developed/being developed by NASA as a result of space exploration. Some of these were patented and licensed out, earning them money (if you want to make an economic argument for funding the space program, this would be a good place to start) but money aside, some of the items on this list are hugely important! These include, but are not limited to, artificial limbs, heart pumps, water purifiers and high-performance solar cells. We may have plenty of problems “down here” that we need to focus on but space exploration isn’t as far removed from those problems as most people would tend to think.

Asteroid mining could transform the economy

The Future

Artist’s impression of Gliese 667cc

But all of that is just in the short term. We tend to wave away the long-term goals because they seem so far-fetched but they are goals worth striving for in their own right. A Martian colony may seem a little impractical now but imagine after we’ve got all the technology down and we take that step towards becoming an interplanetary species. A successful Martian colony would serve as an excellent backup for the human race. Granted, the earth is safe at the moment but with the climate changing, natural disasters wreaking havoc on our cities and radioactive material spilling into our oceans, there may come a time when we can’t survive here anymore and we’ll wish we had colonized Mars. But Mars is nearby and boring, what about the more interesting planets that are farther away? All the potentially habitable planets are light-years away from us but imagine if we could get to them in a few months or years? Although they’re still very far away from practical prototypes, physicists have devised plausible physical theories for building warp drives that could take us to the Gliese 667 system, where there are 3 potentially habitable planets, in as little as 2 years. It sounds implausible but NASA is already planning to have interstellar travel by 2100. Then of course there’s the holy grail of space travel: the discovery of alien life. Right now our best bet is the possibility of bacteria beneath the surface of Mars but what if we went to one of the Gliese planets and found intelligent life? Not only would it be the greatest scientific discovery in human history but just the knowledge of another intelligent species would have massive religious and philosophical implications. 

Inspiration of Future Generations
If that last paragraph has enthused you or gotten you daydreaming about a life aboard the enterprise, that leads me into my last point. Space is one of the few things that still has the power to capture all our imaginations. Think of kids hearing about these sorts of plans and how that gives them something to strive for. Speaking from personal experience, sci-fi and dreams of spacey tech is the reason I got into science. Having things like this going on will create the next generation of scientists and goodness knows we need them. Not just for space and research but in every branch of society. And on top of that, to be human is to dream. Elon Musk said it best when he said a life without dreams is meaningless. We have to dream we have to seek out something new otherwise, what’s the point? Nobody says we should invest too much of our effort in this field. At the end of the day, we live on earth, this is our home and there are a lot of problems we need to face. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be room for space travel as well. Even if it’s only 1% or 0.5% of our total activity as a civilization, it easily pays for itself with the technologies it produces, the young minds it inspires and the sense of wonder it instills in us all. And who knows, maybe one day it will change everything.