All the Arguments for Space Exploration Ever
An extensive look into why any intelligent species should be invested in and driven by space exploration
The Big Bang of human space exploration had just begun. It was the last day of January, 1961. In the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence, the time had come for a fellow Hominid with whom we share a common 13-million-year-old ancestor, to explore. This time beyond the tether of gravity.
Ham, the chimpanzee, lay strapped into a capsule on the Mercury Redstone launch vehicle. Ham was taught to use timed tasks by pushing a lever within five seconds to a blue light flash. When the lever was pressed, he earned himself a banana pellet.
The rocket engines fired and pushed out a raging wake of combusted propellants. The barriers of hominid spaceflight were breached at a velocity greater than 2.6 km/s in this historically important mission that took explorers beyond the pale blue dot that is our Earth. Ham became the first hominid to launch into space.
It was an extra-terrestrial step that was to be a sign of things to come. A giant leap followed when a certain Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon.
Much like our ancestors, we were wanderers still but on a much larger scale. The era of space exploration had begun in a heightened state. Lots of people question the amount of money being poured into space exploration (both physical and telescopic/Earth-based). Unless military in purpose, space exploration doesn’t fall as an aggression against any country. Hence the criticism directed at space exploration originates mostly from the social perspective of the misery, disease and sorry state of present human condition.
The purpose of the article is to dive into all the important things that space exploration is tied to and convince the reader of the immense value that space exploration brings to the table.
Level 1: Science, Technology Spin-offs and Social Welfare
Let us begin with a tour of off-the-shelf arguments that the reader may be probably familiar with. These Level 1 arguments serve as counterarguments to the social criticism. They are meant to remind the critic of the good that has already been done by space exploration. They are strong but oft-repeated arguments and hence may not necessarily convince the reader that space exploration is imminent and essential. But they are important building blocks for the overall argument nonetheless.
The greatest show on earth, the night sky, plays every night. I have a strong belief that the night sky has been a silent galactic-years-old call to human curiosity. As documented records go, humans have kept a watch on the sky for more than a hundred generations. Humans could predict gross positions of major celestial bodies more than 2000 years back. It is what led to predicting the occurrence of seasons and the dawn of large-scale agriculture, thus leading to modern civilization.
The one big event that changed it all when it comes to how humans studied space was the invention of the telescope. The human eye could now access deep space, limited only by the resolution of the telescope. It opened up a whole new world to satiate human curiosity. Let’s look at the impact of this one by one.
Enabling the discovery of planets and moons and its importance
Imagine having neighbors that you never knew before. In the cold vast space, this fragile little oasis of Earth is all we know. Limited knowledge about our own backyard is dangerous. Fortunately, after the invention of the telescope, the discovery of our immediate neighborhood picked up. Humans already knew the existence of the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Mars Jupiter and Saturn from prehistoric times.
With telescopes to help us, the rate of our discovery of objects around us was: 9 bodies in the 17th century, 5 in the 18th, 10 in the 19th and more than 70 in the 20th century. Along with these discoveries came planetary sciences. Planetary sciences aim to determine planetary composition, dynamics and formation. If we were to even attempt to answer the greater questions like those of our origin, we need to consider the evidence from planetary sciences as key pieces of the jigsaw.
Quantifying the speed of light
In 1676, one of the first quantifications of the speed of light was a result of the observation that Io, the moon of Jupiter, had eclipse time delays that could be explained by the position of the observer on Earth. This helped quantify the speed of light within 0.1% error.
Reformulating physics models
Space observation helped identify celestial objects like red giants, white dwarfs, pulsars, galaxies, quasars, etc. All these observations either led to formulation, confirmation or even outright overhauls in the global physics community. Be it debates on the completeness and correctness of the General Theory of Relativity for gravitational physics or that of the Standard Model for particle physics.
Doppler measuring that the velocity of galaxies is proportional to the distance from Earth was one of the first observations that shook up the belief that of a static universe. The Big Bang Theory is the prevailing cosmological model for the origin of the Universe that explains a broad range of phenomena: abundance of light elements, cosmic microwave background, large scale structure and the Hubble’s law. The fact that Earth is a but a speck among the vast, enduring nothingness is a humbling one.
Knowing the value of Life via space exploration
The discovery of the Earth’s magnetosphere and the Van Allen Radiation belt through the Explorer 1 mission broadened our view of the close relationship between a system’s central star and its planets. Just the mere existence of an active planetary magnetic field powered by its internal dynamo increases the chances of a rocky or water-bearing planet to sustain life. The absence of such a shield around Mars is often quoted as a probable reason for the absence of long-lasting life forms on its surface.
Space observation has also allowed the discovery of near earth objects like asteroids and assessment of consequences of the impact of the these objects on Life. The extinction of the dinosaurs due to an asteroid is a due reminder.
The accurate map of Earth was developed as a result of precision remote sensing using satellites. This has led to numerous breakthroughs in human understanding of our planet. From the dynamics of climate, hydrology, tectonic movement to the knowledge that helps build application-based technology that feeds directly/indirectly off these breakthroughs.
The contribution of space exploration to science and human understanding of the universe is hence, undeniable.
B. Spin-offs in Technology
Originally intended for Space Mission-specific applications, there exists a humongous archive of technologies that has or will be used in the public sphere as technology spin-offs. They have directly or indirectly made for great enrichment of our human lives.
- The digital camera’s CMOS active pixel sensor technology was invented in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory which miniaturized imaging systems and minimized power demands over the camera technology based on passive pixel sensors.
- The GPS (Global Positioning System) has its origins in the TOPEX mission, a topography experiment to monitor the ocean currents over time. The experiment required the precise location of the TOPEX satellite and an innovative program called GIPSY-OASIS was developed which helped pinpoint satellite location to 2 cm accuracy. This was extended for terrestrial application and became the GPS we all extensively rely on every single day.
- The list goes on with robotic nurses , advanced water filtration/purification technology, search and rescue systems, LEDs, highway safety, ventricular assist device, structural analysis software (NASTRAN), cordless vacuum cleaners, artificial polyurethane foot, agrophotometers, lower atmospheric wind profiler, precision tapping attachment, ground penetration radars, Doppler weather radars, bedbug detection technology, stomach ulcer identification through breath, lightweight composites for automobiles, pollution detection devices, deep sea drill ships, electronic packaging techniques, densitometer, smoke detector, next-gen radiation imager for airport security checks, surgery microscope for cancer cell identification , a guitar line, radiation hazard detector, solar water heater, food packaging material.
- Majority of the world population has space technology derivatives around them. A more complete compilation of spin-offs can be seen here , here and also here and here.
As if that wasn’t enough, NASA has released a software catalog in 2014 that made over 1600 pieces of software available to the public at no cost. Space agencies that share open source software have tremendously benefited not just the space industry, but also the general public. The general public can use this information to find the planetary positions, see the global weather forecast through actual satellite data.
C. Social Welfare
On the 29th of October, 1999 the Cyclone Paradip made landfall in the Indian state of Orissa. Devastation followed and resulted in 10,000 fatalities. On October 12, 2014, Cyclone Hudhud made landfall in Orissa and resulted in 124 fatalities. Two powerful cyclones but the number of fatalities the second time was only a fraction of the first. Wonder what changed between the two cyclone strikes?
An early warning issued by Indian Meteorological Department and helped evacuate most of the vulnerable population including fishermen resulting in minimal loss of life. The Indian Meteorological Department depends on the ISRO’s Oceansat-2 Scatterometer data to predict wind generation patterns and which allowed them to keep an eye on these cyclogenesis patterns.
Drought monitoring and early warning systems for agriculture have been developed thanks to space research and are used to prepare for droughts around the world. Similarly, forest fires, cyclones, floods and earthquakes are monitored or their impact assessed through satellite data.
Through the use of satellite imagery, a project called Satellite Sentinel Project provides an early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns.
Lest we forget, the contribution of our space program on social welfare. There are over 2000 communication satellites in Earth’s orbit today servicing telephony, television (including Direct-To-Home services) and satellite radio networks round the world for hundreds of millions of people. It is important to note that such communication is the only source of information for remote communities.
India’s EDUSAT program is used for tele-education targeted primarily at the rural children where access to alternative information is scarce.
Regular monitoring of tropospheric pollutants like ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, etc. is done through satellites. This helps us track the impact that humanity is having on the climate of our planet and to take steps to slow down the reality of climate change.
To sum up, the role of space technology in saving lives and preserving our environment is an under-appreciated but essential element in our modern lives.
Level 2: Economics, Resources and Core Human Needs
The act of exploration of space is certainly driven by curiosity but is surely underpinned by the human necessity to progress. Space is a 350 billion dollar plus industry. A third of this pie comes through expenditure from government budgets around the world. The Commercial Infrastructure and Support Industries and Commercial Space Products and Services comprise the rest of the pie.
You may be aware of the morbid sounding quote from the movie Fight Club.
When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything, the IBM Stellar Sphere, the Microsoft Galaxy, Planet Starbucks.
If you sell bananas for a living and the rate at which your customers consume bananas exceeds the rate of banana production, you are in trouble. You either: A) need the banana producers to get more land and grow more bananas or B) do something because everyone loves bananas.
In other words, the demand for resources would eventually drive existing providers or new players in the game to build extra-terrestrial resource farms given the limited resources we have on earth. This sort of thinking would form the foundation of the economics of the future space industry. We can only hope that the corporations would come up with better names.
The space industry workforce numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. It helps to keep the working-age population employed and productive. Apart from the hands and legs that is characteristic of a manufacturing-heavy industry, a higher percentage of semi-skilled and skilled workforce — especially those of the space and space-allied sectors — show up directly in every per capita income and domestic product paradigm.
The last decade saw private players like SpaceX grow enormously and take over roles which were once thought to be doable only by government organizations. Rocket Lab successfully launched their innovative low-cost Electron rocket into orbit very recently.
Given the efficiency of implementation that private companies bring to the table, it is heartening to note their rapid growth in the field of space. Private companies are joining space exploration in the fields of crew and cargo transport vehicles, space station modules, planetary probes, research craft and technology demonstrators, space-based manufacturing, space mining, space habitation, spaceliners (for space tourism) as well as spacecraft component developers.
The commercial space sector directly and indirectly help meet payrolls, pay taxes and sustain economic growth. Direct-To-Home services are estimated to be worth a $100 billion alone.
A study conducted in 1976 by Chase Econometrics estimated that for every dollar invested into the space program, 7 dollars were returned to the economy in new jobs, factories and technology. The study also found that Federal dollars spent on research and development by NASA were four times as effective as other R&D spending, and that applications of technological breakthroughs were visible in the economy within two years of their achievement.
Another major study considered the quantification of benefits due to four NASA technologies: cryogenics, gas turbines, integrated circuits and the NASA Structural Analysis (NASTRAN) computer system. Based on microeconomic consumer surplus theory, the study found the total economic benefit due to the four cases studied was of the order of $7 billion.
A study even correlated the increase in spending on the R&D with significant increase in the GDP, reduction in the rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), reduction in unemployment and increase of labor force.
Then there are other off shoots, which may often seem surprising. As a result of on blended winglet design that originated from NASA, 2 billion gallons of jet fuel equivalent to a cost saving of more than $4 billion dollars was realized. That essentially means that next time you book that cheap airline ticket for your holiday, you could do with a word of thanks for space research.
B. Resources in Space
Imagine the year 2030. A pilot mission is being carried out. An asteroid is intercepted by a swarm of man-made satellite rock-breakers. Once the rock splits into fragments, they are collected and brought down to Earth. The satellites splash at a predetermined point in the Atlantic Ocean and are shipped to the headquarters of a start-up based in California. Overnight, the 100,000 tonnes of platinum they mined out of deep space makes them the richest company in the world, worth 20 trillion dollars!
It may sound like science fiction, but this isn’t a scenario that is completely outside of the realm of possibilities. There are about 400,000 100m-sized near earth asteroids (NEAs) and about 20% of them are easier to land on than the Moon. The most useful resources that can be found on these asteroids would be water, ferrous ores, platinum-group metals and Group III and IV semiconductor materials, all of which are extremely valuable.
An economically feasible plan for resource extraction, exploitation and introduction of space sourced products into the mainstream will radically change the paradigm and the relationship between industrial resources and their availability on the planet. The realization that resources are not running out should be a cause for celebration and a message for a more intelligent management of Earthly resources. This comes in light of the United States Bill H.R.2262 passed to be law on November 25th 2015, which includes Section IV — Space Resource Exploration and Utilization, championed by Planetary Resources, a private company.
As we speak, space mining technical demonstrators are being developed by private companies like Deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources and more. Achieving technical feats such as these would be important first steps for humanity’s long-term future.
It is a lucrative proposition, and even while the era of hydrocarbon based energy might be on the wane, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has hundreds of times more natural gas and other hydrocarbons than all known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth put together. In addition to its scientific value, Titan is worth exploring for the sake of many industries that will continue to use hydrocarbon based products. Earth’s known gas reserves are expected to run out in around 60 years. This very possibly will drive private and government entities to explore space with greater vigor in the near future.
Helium-3, an isotope of Helium could be one of the biggest game changers of humanity’s future and it present in large quantities on the Moon. It is a possible fusion fuel with an energy yield of 12 to 18 MeV per reaction, which is comparable to the conventional Deuterium-Tritium reaction, but without the damaging effects of releasing a neutron (only a proton is ejected in a Deuterium-Helium-3 reaction, whose kinetic energy can also be harnessed to increase total yield). Although, He-3 based power generation has not had a technology demonstrator yet and has invited criticism, there are strong reasons to be optimistic.
C. Core Human Needs
Space is a mystery, a problem to be solved. Questions like ‘How did the universe begin?’ have their rational answers hidden in the galaxies. Mysteries appeal to our deepest instincts. As Carl Jung puts it, “Even a scientist is a human being. So it is natural for him, like others, to hate the things he cannot explain.”
As Maslow’s theory puts it, when individuals attain self-sufficiency, they interact and form a society. And as a society’s lower needs are satisfied, higher needs replace them. As humans develop capabilities to survive in deep-space, they will evolve into a more complex life-form. Earth maybe humanity’s cradle but this is not the place where we should go extinct. Space exploration and eventual settlement is therefore an evolutionary need.
Level 3: Catastrophic Risks, Space Settlement and Far Future
A. Catastrophic Risks
If everyone agrees to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land would support about 10 billion people.
But since this unlikely that everyone will switch to the vegetarian diet anytime soon and the fact that eating livestock is inefficient in terms of conservation of the overall food produce, we may be looking at an alarming future scenario. It can be imagined that the most non-violent option to permanently tackle this impending problem would be human space inhabitation.
In the future, there are a host of risks like molecular nanotech weapons, wars, super-intelligent artificial beings, nuclear terrorism and engineered pandemics that have the capacity to cause human extinction. On top of all of that threat is a major philosophical dilemma, whether our moral obligations to future humans outweigh those we have to humans that are alive and suffering right now. Philosopher Toby Ord mentions:
I am finding it increasingly plausible that existential risk is the biggest moral issue in the world.
A global catastrophic risk is a hypothetical future event that has the potential to damage human well-being on a global scale and cripple/destroy modern civilization. In 2008, a small but illustrious group of experts on different global catastrophic risks at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference at the University of Oxford suggested a 19% chance of human extinction over the next century.
An impact by a ~10 km asteroid on the Earth has historically caused an extinction-level event including wiping off dinosaurs of the face of the Earth. The impact speed of a long-period comet would likely be several times greater than that of near-Earth asteroid, making its impact much more destructive.
Generally, the warning time for such an event is likely to be only a few months which is far less time to do a counteracting mission. This should be alarming enough for the need to draw up official, globally accepted plans to tackle a threat like an asteroid impact. In order to avoid collision with such impactors, we could go for destructive or deflective solutions (like gravity tractors).
Any one of these solutions would require a coordinated global effort from space agencies and military. Hence, investment needs to be put into development of such space programs.
Human space exploration and settlement is one great risk mitigation strategy. This way, we can isolate the impacts of a life-threatening event on the Earth from a settlement far away in deep-space.
B. Space Settlement
Stephen Hawking argued:
Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next 1000 or 10000 years.
As Elon Musk said:
I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”
Elon Musk believes that we must have a million-strong community in Mars to form a sustainable, productive, genetically diverse civilization. It is assumed that it would take nearly hundred years for this to happen.
Such a feat requires multiple developments to happen. For all the known plans that exist today, we are decades away from humans conducting a pilot landing mission to Mars. These decades shall witness an exploding growth of artificial intelligence which could be used to make space travel incredibly safer. This period may also be used to improve spacecraft propulsion technologies keeping in mind the size of cargo ships that shall be used when mass migration occurs. Hence, it makes a lot of sense to invest in these capabilities. Last but not the least, there needs to be a right crew psychology for the success of such missions.
Technology for deep space survival could be improved only if experiments for human flight are done sooner. For example, bodily fluids shift towards the head in low gravity environment potentially causing problems in vision. NASA is working on compression cuffs worn on astronaut thighs to help keep the blood in the lower extremities. Space suit designs are to be improved given the risk of radiation and material tear. I could go on, but you get the point.
There are a lot advantages of terraforming Mars i.e. artificially changing its surface and climate to be Earth-like. Mars is the most Earth-like planet in the solar system. It lies just in the outer parts of the habitable zone (where life can exist) of the solar system. There is an significant presence of water ice and carbon dioxide on the Martian surface. Hence, Martian surface can be chosen as one of the ideal place of human colonization in case of a doomsday scenario occurring on Earth.
C. Far Future
The Sun will one day grow so large that the high luminosity and heat will sterilize our planet, and maybe even engulf it. However, our biosphere has little chance of surviving until then. In a few hundred million years, the sun will be hot and large enough to destroy food chains. Any habitation on Mars won’t survive for long either and we have to move beyond if we are to survive.
Beyond the solar system, there is a list of potentially habitable exoplanets for potential human colonization targets in the far future. Our first interstellar trip might be to nearby star Alpha Centauri, but in the long run, smaller stars will be the most attractive galactic lily pads to leap to. That’s because small stars like red dwarfs burn much longer than main sequence stars like our Sun. Some might be capable of heating human habitats for hundreds of billions of years. Red Dwarf stars thus may well be the last homes for Life in the Universe.
In terms of spreading out to multiple such red dwarfs across the entire galaxy, it is not as impossible as it seems. Even at a slow pace, the galaxy can be colonized in less than a million years.
It is not too late yet. The future of humanity should belong among the stars. And it is up to all of us to make it happen.