There are no Kangaroos on Mars
With wealth disparity on Earth obvious and at every turn, on a superficial level, I understand why it’s easy for many to oppose the idea of space travel (also conceding that it looks a little frivolous when the world’s richest man launches himself into outer space to fulfill a childhood dream).
From the most vocal of the critics of space travel, there’s a deceptive and smug zero-sum mentality at play. Blue Origin is funded by about $1 billion per year. SpaceX has raised $6.6 billion in funding in its 19 years of operating. For the sake of arbitrary comparison, the NFL made $12 billion in 2020 (sizable, even with a $4 billion loss of yards from their 2019 revenue), yet I’ve never heard anyone bring up global poverty in the context of the NFL.
Unlike professional football, space travel, and more importantly, space colonization are not frivolous, but are incredibly necessary for the survival of our species. Even if we can avert the impending threat of global warming, there are plenty of other ways we could meet our end on Earth. There’s asteroids, solar flares, supervolcanoes, nuclear winter (reminder that there are still 10,000+ nuclear weapons on Earth), and oh yeah, viruses.
Having a presence on multiple planets, at the very least, gives us a fighting chance of surviving cataclysmic events as a species. Staying on Earth, on a long enough time horizon, is the equivalent of lying on the tracks and waiting for the train to come. But even this argument isn’t the most persuasive case we can make for space exploration.
Rather than bickering about the merits of investing in space, we need to show people how the possibility of space totally changes the game that we’re playing on Earth. How can we assume economic scarcity or fight over limited land and resources on Earth if we’re able to create conditions where humans can flourish, even on barren planets?
Previous eras of human exploration brought economic expansion and untold sums of wealth to the civilizations who undertook the endeavor of exploration. However, these accomplishments are marred because the “discovery” that took place was relative. People already lived in these territories and the bounty of colonization took place at their expense. What we have observed of space so far is uninhabited and for all intents and purposes, endless.
Further, by setting our sights on a difficult target, planetary colonization, we force ourselves to solve for a whole host of problems that, in the pursuit of answers, will inevitably make life better for us on Earth, long before we ever settle on Mars. This is what challenges do, they force growth.
Nuclear weapons gave us nuclear energy. NASA, with its gaze set on the stars, has given us countless inventions and so has the military as it exports “peace” globally. But we don’t need endless wars to fuel economic and technological growth. We’d be far more productive throwing our money into outer space than into blowing up the planet we live on.
There are endless hurdles to colonizing space: how to efficiently traverse massive distances carrying humans and materials and land them safely on distant planets, how to feed those humans, how to keep those people healthy, how to build infrastructure in outer space, how to power that infrastructure, and so on.
Instead of viewing each of these challenges as a resource sink, we should see them for what they really are: each is an opportunity for us to create breakthroughs in technology and understanding that benefit life on Earth.
This is already taking place today. But it’s never framed this way in our discourse.
Reframing Space Exploration Discourse
In human history, hunting wildlife has been a stopgap for migrating humans to prevent starvation. For example, a mix of British military and prisoners set foot on the shores of Australia in the late 1700s to establish a penal colony. The soil was harsh and it would take years to cultivate for agriculture. The initial settlers lived for years on the brink of starvation and survived by hunting birds and kangaroos.
There are no kangaroos on Mars, as far as I’m aware. Some bold ideas, such as terraforming Mars, have been proposed, and a few companies have set out to address the issue of how to provide food in outer space.
Orbital Farms, to use an example, is a great case of how the divide between innovating for outer space isn’t detached from solving for our most pressing needs here on Earth. The company is creating large, closed-loop vertical farms that can grow anything from corn or bok choy to vaccines. They’ll even be able to “grow” tilapia.
If successful, not only will future humans be able to enjoy fish & chips in lush gardens on Mars, but, before that, these self-sustaining systems will be hugely helpful in addressing problems of nutrition and hunger here on Earth.
“Don’t tell me what you do, tell me what you do for me.” That’s one of our maxims for good messaging at JDI. Ensuring the survival of our species is a valid, worthwhile endeavor. But it’s highly unlikely that anyone alive today will experience the benefits of today’s investments. In that sense, saving the species is a service being rendered to future generations. But what’s in it for us, in the here and now? That’s the message we fail to deliver consistently when we talk about space.
What existing and new space ventures can learn is that to maximize the support for their missions in space, they need to message to the here and now. If they succeed, what does this theory of change look like for the billions of people who will never have the opportunity to go to outer space?