The Earth Shot

Why isn’t Earth’s climate crisis inspiration enough for technological revolution?

Water flows near the Tibetan foothills of the Himalayas. Water pollution and scarcity have increasingly become problems for the 1.4 billion people who rely on the Himalayas for water.

Yesterday President Obama published an Op Ed on CNN. com announcing the United State’s newest space exploration aspirations.

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” wrote the President in an article that described the “sense of wonder about our space program” he experienced as a child in Hawaii as he sat on his grandfather’s shoulders and watched NASA astronauts return to Earth.

I remember my own childhood wonder about space exploration, wandering through the Moon rover exhibit at the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago, imagining what it would be like to sift my gloved hand through moondust. My elementary school set up a small dome in our library on to which teachers would project constellations of stars. We would sit mesmerized by the twinkling lights as we were taught to identify the Big and Little Dipper, the Gemini twins. Inside that small, dark space you could reach out and touch the images of stars. I would close my eyes and wonder what it would feel like to experience the weightlessness of outer space.

But now I have different dreams. Dreams that are no less majestic. And I think that I am not alone in my desire not to explore outer space, but instead to explore every last possibility for what we can do to preserve our beautiful, fragile Earth in the face of environmental disaster.

In his editorial President Obama wrote, “When our Apollo astronauts looked back from space, they realized that while their mission was to explore the moon, they had ‘in fact discovered the Earth.’ If we make our leadership in space even stronger in this century than it was in the last, we won’t just benefit from related advances in energy, medicine, agriculture and artificial intelligence, we’ll benefit from a better understanding of our environment and ourselves.”

I won’t dispute that NASA funded research has made valuable contributions to our life on Earth. But I don’t understand why space exploration has to serve as the catalyst for innovation.

NASA actually plays a very important role in understanding combatting climate change. Data from NASA provides insights into the health of our Earth’s living systems. NASA has done a lot to benefit against climate change, but it could be doing more.

Why couldn’t we instead infuse the 300 million dollars NASA has estimated it will cost to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030 into an “Earth shot”? An all out effort to reverse the negative impacts of climate change, and develop technologies to minimize the impact of the growing human population on Earth’s biodiversity and living systems.

An “Earth shot” would not only benefit the environment; it would provide both immediate and long lasting benefits for people across the globe, especially in low and middle income countries where people are disproportionately effected by pollution.

The 2016 report on pollution by World Bank cited that “…according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations (IHME), diseases attributed to indoor and outdoor air pollution were responsible for 1 in 10 deaths worldwide in 2013, and air pollution has become the fourth risk factor for premature deaths, just behind tobacco smoking.”

More than ever, people around the world aware of damage we are inflicting on our natural environmental and ourselves.

Why can’t we harness that awareness and focus NASA’s 2030 goal not on exploration of Mars, but on preservation of Earth?