The final frontier keeps getting delayed
11 February 2018
It’s been over 50 years since President Kennedy delivered one of his most famous speeches. Like ‘I have a dream’ or ‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ its title is derived from its most defining line—‘We choose to go to the moon.’
In 18 minutes and roughly 2000 words, Kennedy dispelled the pessimism that came with exploration and space travel. He framed the endeavour not as a race to beat the Soviets, but as the ‘greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.’ To those who disagreed and saw no value in a moon landing, Kennedy asked, ‘why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?’
That generation’s optimism never left us. Their enthusiasm for space still exists in the United States and nations all around the globe. 58% of Americans believe that it is essential for their country to be a world leader in space exploration; 63% expect a Mars landing in the next 30 years, and 74% see space exploration as having done more good than harm. Kennedy said, ‘we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
67% of Americans would be reluctant to pay for more space exploration. 4 in 10 believe the United States spends just the right amount, and 3 in 10 think it spends too much.
The hard things need to be done.
If there’s anything President Trump deserves respect for, it’s his decision to reignite America’s efforts on the moon. However, it comes at a time when the landscape of space exploration is more different than ever, as private companies have stepped in to fill the void left by previous governments.
The enthusiasm for space exploration never dwindled, but NASA’s budget certainly did. SpaceX alone has revolutionised spaceflight technology, capturing public attention in a way that NASA has been unable to do for years. Companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are also a part of this new wave.
While mining and settlement may be years away, tourism is still a possible and lucrative source of income for those who are able to set up the infrastructure. These companies are building the future. Right now, SpaceX cooperates with NASA for the contracts it offers, but that doesn’t mean future competition is impossible.
Despite all the new players in this industry, however, I still believe that space exploration should be an endeavour spearheaded by governments rather than companies. The people fighting hardest for our future should be the ones we elect. The backbone of exploration and discovery has always been government-funded, from Spain’s funding of Columbus to England’s funding of Cook. Monuments are in the interest of nations, and a spacefaring civilisation would be the biggest monument to mankind ever.
I’m sure we would all much rather see an American flag on Mars rather than a corporate logo.
As dimly hypothesised in Fight Club, ‘when deep space exploitation ramps up, it will probably be the megatonic corporations that discover all the new planets and map them. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Phillip Morris Galaxy. Planet Denny’s.’
When it comes to private companies in space, we also can’t count on them to share our interests and goals, especially in regards to things like the Outer Space Treaty.
The one thing keeping them afloat could also be what renders them useless—money. Despite how generous and altruistic Elon Musk may seem, at the end of the day, he’s a businessman. He has a fiduciary responsibility to his investors.
If we put all our expectations into these companies, and suddenly they started haemorrhaging money, our dreams of space would remain unrealised. I couldn’t see the same happening for an organisation like NASA, though. The agency has survived budget cuts, recessions, and a financial crisis without being shut down.
The biggest obstacle facing NASA and governmental space agencies is apathy, apathy from the people who are elected and ignorance from those who elect them. Americans are optimistic about our future outside of earth, yet they and many others are reluctant to pay more in taxes.
You can’t blame them, but perhaps the answer lies with more education. To start, a 2007 survey found that Americans believed NASA’s budget to be a quarter—2.7 trillion dollars—of the 2006 federal budget when in reality, it was more like 0.58% of the budget. The survey isn’t definitive, but if its results are true, then I’m sure not much has changed since.
Space exploration is under threat not from technological limitations, but the statement of, ‘we should solve our problems on earth first.’ Such ideas are shortsighted and self-centred.
Or as famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, put it, ‘The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us.’
Why build a better life for yourself if others are living poorly?
Why do anything if there are other problems to solve first?
There will always be human suffering. There will always be problems to solve on earth. The goal of mankind is not to merely be subsistent but to thrive. I don’t think there will ever be a ‘mass exodus’ from earth; we won’t be abandoning what we have here.
There is also merit in the technological inventions and scientific discoveries that come through the process of space exploration. I can’t begin to mention all the technology given to the world just through NASA’s research, from camera phones to water purification. In all these instances, scientists weren’t trying to create a life-changing new product. They were simply trying to solve a specific problem with an invention that would turn out to have numerous applications.
Success in space often translates to success on earth, and in the end, this is all for the benefit of humanity. Some may see it as a way to leave our home, but I see it as a way to improve it.
This is an endeavour that requires both private companies and government agencies to see it to its full potential. We are just people living on masses of land, surrounded by an ocean, on a planet, within a solar system, among billions of other stars, in a galaxy, within a universe. It’s about time we settled Mars, explored deep space, and did ‘the other things.’