Space is Hard, so Why Bother?
Nothing in space is easy. Humanity has been reaching for the stars for almost 60 years and dreaming of them for much longer. We have a fascination with the heavens above us that draws people to spend their entire lives studying the subject. Understanding the space environment, traveling to space, exploring space; it is all difficult, so why do we do it?
Let me give you an example of how space is hard. Consider driving to a friend’s house. There are well defined paths to get there, there is a set speed at which you should travel and once you get at your destination you simply have to stop your vehicle and all is good and well. Furthermore, if you forget something, you can easily turn around and begin your journey again and if you need fuel along your way, there are many places you can stop and get some gas.
Now consider traveling to the moon. While we know how to get there, there are no roads leading to the moon rather we have to calculate our orbital path to transfer to the moon’s sphere of influence. This requires extremely precise timing and understanding of the intended approach. So at the time of launch, we need to know exactly how much our craft weighs, how much it will weigh at the end of every thruster burn, how long each burn will last and a million other factors. We also do not have the option to turn around if something goes wrong, we forget something, or if we simply decide that we no longer want to go to the moon. If space is so difficult, why do we explore it?
I believe that the desire to explore is something which is inherently human and it can be seen by looking at our past. We originally evolved in Africa and set out to explore the world around us until we inhabited nearly every continent. As humans continued to develop new technologies, we wanted to sail across the seas to find new lands and new paths to contact each other. Now that we can have been everywhere on Earth, we need a new frontier to explore to satisfy this seemingly human need.
Since space travel is extremely difficult, it requires that we come up with new technologies which end up giving benefits to Earth-based life as well. Advances in robotics, medicine, and understanding human physiology are just a few examples of what space exploration has given back on top of the primary benefits of furthering our understanding of the universe we live in. Another interesting example of space-based innovations benefiting life on Earth is grooved pavement. During the Shuttle-era of exploration, NASA noticed an issue of the Shuttle being unstable while landing on runways after returning from orbit. So a team of engineers was tasked with coming up with a solution to the problem and they found that by cutting grooves into the pavement in the direction of travel, the Shuttle was more stable as these grooves helped to guide the tires in a straight line. This innovation was then applied to off ramps for highways where cars tend to lose control, thus resulting in higher safety for the passengers where this pavement was utilized.
At this point I still feel like I have not given a succinct answer as to why we explore space, but it really is a difficult question to answer. There is no urgent need for humanity to escape Earth, but there will be sometime in our future (maybe in 2020, maybe not for a hundred thousand years) where humanity will no longer be able to live on Earth for some reason. This is one of the reasons why Elon Musk started SpaceX, to develop a permanent colony on Mars and begin humanity’s multiplanetary existence. The push for Mars which is currently happening is essentially our generation’s moon program. Landing people on Mars within the next 30 years will reinvigorate peoples’ imaginations just as the Apollo program did in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
We explore space because we can and because there is still so much to be learned about the universe in which we live. The advances in technology which help push the limits of our abilities in space often offer benefits to life on Earth, which shouldn’t been seen as the primary goal of space exploration, but it definitely shouldn’t be ignored. I personally am extremely excited for the future of space exploration and I cannot wait to see where humans will be exploring within the next 30 years and beyond and I hope that you too are equally excited and see the importance of our continued exploration of space.
Thanks for reading.