While some mourned the loss of the Space Shuttle program earlier this year, I celebrate it. Because I think it’s irresponsible to spend government money on ego-boosting projects like sending people into space when we’re trying to battle systematic unemployment and a double-dip recession while simultaneously fighting multiple wars? Nope.
I don’t care about the Space Shuttle because it wasn’t ambitious enough. Facing budget shortfalls and waning public interest at the end of the Apollo program, NASA actually canceled the final three planned missions to the moon. Wanting to reduce funding but maintain the prestige of one of America’s proudest emblems, it birthed the Shuttle Program. Ostensibly, the Shuttle’s goal was to make space flight cheap and routine, which is slightly less lofty than the Kennedy-era ambitions. The real goal, however, was much worse even than that. NASA needed to spend enough money to seem like it was doing something. The goal of the Space Shuttle program was to waste money. Which means it was a spectacular success.
Where could we be right now? With slightly more funds or even less frequent but more ambitious trips, it is likely we could have sent someone to Mars by now (Robert Zubrin’s excellent books The Case for Mars and Entering Space, both released more than a decade ago, make this painfully clear). Instead, we sent people up all the time to do experiments thought up by elementary school kids (often literally). “But we learned about the effects of long term space flight.” You mean when you don’t use your muscles at all for six months you’re liable to get a little weaker? No way!
To be fair, we’ve learned about some problems, especially relating to solar radiation, that we haven’t figured out how to solve yet, and would be a prerequisite for any trip to Mars that wouldn’t inflict permanent harm on the astronauts. However, it isn’t surprising that we haven’t solved the problems, since we haven’t really tried. And if you honestly don’t think there are lots of qualified candidates who would risk cancer for a chance to be the first person on Mars, then, well, you and I disagree. People shorten their lifespan all the time to hit a ball with a stick or win a bicycle race. I think we could find somebody willing to risk it for eternal glory.
It is possible, even likely, that we will never figure out a way to travel faster than the speed of light. It will take months to get to Mars, years to get the gas giants and decades to go anywhere farther. Interstellar travel will take a very long time. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If we can generate speeds close enough to light, we can take advantage of relativity to make the trips seem shorter. If not, we can build bigger ships and take whole communities that will live on the ship for generations. People will want to go. People will always believe in the power of the frontier and their own ingenuity to make a better life for themselves.
Recent advances in telescope technologies and techniques for discovering planets have radically changed the inputs to the Drake equation. It is increasingly likely that someday, very plausibly in our lifetimes, we will learn that there is a planet similar to ours that is home to a species with which we can communicate. When that day comes, we will have to ask ourselves if we want to knock on our neighbor’s door with a batch of cookies or close the blinds and pretend we’re not home.
Furthermore, Earth will not be a habitable planet forever. Whether through our own stupidity, an asteroid collision, some unforeseen event, or the death cycle of the sun, the survival of our species will eventually depend on our ability to relocate.
But the best reason for continuing to explore space is the one given by the immortal Sir Edmund Hillary: “Because it is there.”