The Case for Space

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On a day where Jeff Bezos becomes the second billionaire within a fortnight to go to space, many are criticising him, and his Virgin Galactic competitor, Richard Branson, for what they see as “billionaires’ joyrides” [1]. Yet – if you’ll forgive the cliché – one small step for these two men could turn into one giant leap for mankind. Indeed, humanity finds itself in a precarious position on its home planet, so, as I’m going to argue, forging ahead with space exploration is no bad thing.

Indeed, we are transgressing natural systems beyond their ability to cope as a result of biodiversity loss, climate change and ocean acidification [2]. This could have severe repercussions on the viability of civilisation, with speculation that it could result in the end of the human species [3]. Although that is likely an exaggeration, the point remains that some catastrophic event could annihilate humanity: if not global warming, then nuclear holocaust, a super volcano, or an asteroid collision.

In fact, some scholars argue that events like these may constitute “great filters” that have repeatedly eradicated intelligent life in the universe [4]. They base this hypothesis on the fact that 99% of species to ever lived on Earth are extinct. It would also offer a reasonable resolution to the fermi paradox: the question of why, when the universe is so big, signs of extra-terrestrial life are absent [5]. In fact, if we could prove or disprove the presence of life on other planets, we could begin to test both the great filter hypothesis and the fermi paradox. Understanding them better would shed light on how life on Earth began, how rare it is, and how it might evolve. These questions are critical for comprehending human place in the universe and how we may secure it far into the future.

What is tantalising is that the answers to some of these questions could be found simply by exploring our own solar system more [6]. NASA recognises this and is planning to return humans to the Moon by the end of the decade. Although it is almost certainly lifeless, establishment of a lunar base could act as a training ground for missions further afield, notably to Mars [7]. The prospect of discovering more about the red planet is particularly exciting, given the very real possibility of finding life, be it extant or long dead [8] [9]. Although a manned mission would arguably provide the most conclusive evidence either way, the global community is already trying to get more answers through robotic envoys, three of which are currently on the Martian surface [10]. These are helping to develop the technology for probes to touchdown on more distant worlds, like the moons  of Jupiter and Saturn, which may have liquid oceans that dwarf Earth’s [4].  Such missions would not only be critical in the search for extra-terrestrial life but could lay the groundwork for human habitation in the future. This being the case, it seems logical that governments of all development levels should redouble their efforts to this end and  radically increase their budget contributions to space programmes.

Many of course would baulk at this prospect, arguing that the money is better spent on problems “closer to home” such as fighting thirst and hunger, income inequality or environmental degradation [11]. The natural riposte of course is that none of this will matter too much should humanity go extinct. However, there is perhaps a better counter argument – that these problems could themselves be solved by space exploration. The resources within the solar system are vast and could easily solve key shortages in human society. While water supplies dwindle on Earth, liquid water on other celestial bodies may exceed what is available in the oceans 100-fold [12]. Precious metals used to construct computers like platinum, palladium, and gold are billions of times more abundant in asteroids and could satisfy human demand indefinitely [13]. Some of the proceeds from their mining (which may reach into the quadrillions) could be used to help address poverty and build economic resilience. Finally, the technological know-how that would be developed through space exploration would be vast and could help solve a range of environmental and social issues. To help illustrate the potential, consider that everything from baby formula to smoke detectors, CAT scans and solar panels have been developed through space programmes [14]. There is little doubt that space exploration would cause the quality of life to rise on Earth.

Consider by analogy, the (re)discovery of the Americas in 1492. Before setting out, Christopher Columbus had trouble convincing perspective patrons that he wasn’t a madman. His requests for funding were thrown out by the Portuguese, Genoans and the Venetians on the grounds that his planned voyage was unrealistic. Yet once he’d finally secured backing from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, he came up trumps – not by finding a quicker trade route to Asia as he’d anticipated but by setting foot in the Americas – a continent previously unknown to Europeans (or at least lost from memory [15]).

This set the stage for the so called « Columbian Exchange » – a hectic transfer of people, plants and animals between the New and Old Worlds. In the long term this helped to supercharge the global standard of living as the discovery of new crops reinforced global food stability, while the wealth from the resources discovered was reinvested in technology [16]. The very existence of America, a surprise to many leading academics, also sparked fierce intellectual debates about the source of knowledge, helping to create the conditions for the Enlightenment and ultimately the Industrial Revolution [16]. There is no reason why a similar process could not happen on a much larger scale, through the settlement of the solar system.

Of course, some would rightly point out that the colonisation of the Americas entrained large human suffering, notably through the transfer of disease, the slave trade and native American genocide. And without doubt, Europeans have benefited more than any other people. But the point stands that going to space could have benefits beyond those we could presently imagine, which if shared properly could open an infinite wealth of possibilities.

Establishing a presence throughout the solar system, although an epic achievement, should only be  the start of human’s cosmic voyage, given that it may be come uninhabitable as the sun expands and then fades into a white dwarf 5 billion years from now [17]. However, the incentive to colonise interstellar space may be much more immediate than this: if we don’t do it, then who else will? If humanity is the only life out there, that would put us in an extremely privileged position. We would be the unique conscious manifestation of the cosmos, the only way for the universe to view itself. We would then owe it to our existence to experience as much of it as we could. If we did not perform a flypast of Proxima Centauri, who else would? If we did not explore the exoplanets of Andromeda, who else would? If we were not there when the last star in the universe flickered out, who else would be?

*If you liked this article, you’ll love The Case for Space II: Searching for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (published 7th April 2022).

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