Why Space?: The NSS Rationale for Exploring and Settling the Endless Frontier
The futurist Arthur C. Clarke once said that every revolutionary idea passes through three phases, which can be characterized by the statements of its critics: 1) “It’ll never work – it’s pure fantasy.” 2) “It might work, but it’s not worth doing.” 3) “I said it was a great idea all along.” The idea of space settlement has passed through the first phase and is well into the second. At present it is indeed hideously expensive to send anything into space. Continued technological progress will lower that cost – if we continue to devote the necessary resources to developing the appropriate technologies. But the triumph of any revolutionary idea is not inevitable; it must first persuade enough people, with enough economic clout, that it should triumph. So let us examine the reasons why this particular revolutionary idea is worth pursuing.
Because Space Has Resources to Enrich Earth
The majority of people on Earth live at an economic level that is far below that of the Western democracies, but they have the same aspirations for prosperity as their wealthier neighbors. It would be arrogant and cruel to tell them that they must limit their ambitions because the finite resources of this single planet we live on are already spoken for. Nor do the citizens of the more privileged nations wish to return to a more limited and frugal lifestyle. Yet the resources of this Earth are limited, and however we attempt to conserve them, they will someday run out. The end of our petroleum reserves is already in sight. As resources become more scarce, the competition for them will become more fierce. Wars will be followed by a decline to perpetual poverty for all humanity. This is a bleak prospect, but it is a future that need never come to pass. The human future can be prosperous for all people, not just the privileged few, if we develop the vast resources of space.
In the process of settling space we will learn, among other things, to locate and access energy and material resources to support our growing economy. Outer space holds virtually limitless amounts of energy and raw materials, from Helium-3 fuel on the Moon for clean fusion reactors to heavy metals and volatile gases from the asteroids, which can be harvested for use on Earth and in space. Quality of life can be improved directly by using these resources and also indirectly by moving hazardous and polluting industries and/or their waste products off planet Earth.
The resources of our solar system are almost unimaginably vast. To get some idea of their magnitude, consider that just one of the thousands of cataloged Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), 3354 Amun, is made of iron, nickel, cobalt and platinum-group metals with an estimated value of $20 trillion dollars – about twice the Gross National Product of the United States!
Because Space Technologies Will Enrich Our Lives On Earth
We are not talking here of “spinoffs,” items of hardware developed for space that find uses here on Earth. Those are happy coincidences, but in economic terms the critics of space investment are right in calling them trivial. The really big technological payoffs are entirely new fields of engineering, leading to such applications as the manufacture of products in microgravity that cannot be manufactured at all in the gravity on Earth’s surface. We have not even begun to scratch the surface of these possibilities, but they will ultimately transform the Earth’s economy. For the moment, we can only point to ultralight devices and high-strength materials that have been developed for use in the harsh space environment and been put to wide use as basic tools in Earthside industry, and say “The best is yet to come.”
Because We Need to Learn What’s Out There
It is human nature to learn more about our origins, our past, our fellow life forms, our environment, our limitations, and our possibilities for the future. Such explorations give our lives context and meaning. Earth is but a tiny container of knowledge compared to the entire incredibly vast universe. Our existence is miraculous, and an investigation of that existence is certainly a worthy quest for several lifetimes. The quest to find other life also adds richness to the tapestry of our lives.
Knowing what’s out there isn’t just a matter of abstract scientific curiosity. In the long run, it can be a matter of life and death. Asteroids and comets (many of them still undiscovered) cross Earth’s orbit every year. Some, like the Shoemaker-Levy comet that struck Jupiter in 1994, and the Tunguska meteor that flattened 830 square miles of Siberian forest in 1908, have the potential to cause planet-wide catastrophe. To detect and deflect such threats, we will need to operate in space as freely as we do on earth. Likewise, our ability to exploit the limitless power of the sun (reducing our need to use carbon-based fuels and the pollution they cause) will depend on our building large structures in space. We need to start developing these capabilities now.
Robots can do things that human beings cannot and don’t want to do: like traveling to the extremely hot atmosphere of Venus or the crushing gravity of Jupiter or spending hours or days gazing fixedly at objects millions of light-years away. On the other hand, despite incredible advances in electronics, artificial intelligence, and materials, robots cannot repair themselves or move around simple obstacles without a team of programmers back on Earth. Human beings are natural explorers; they can move more quickly across an alien surface; they can make repairs and judgment calls on-site; and they can more quickly formulate and test hypotheses. And, as the late astronaut Gus Grissom said, “In the final analysis, only Man can evaluate the Moon in terms understandable to other men.” We need people out on the frontier, living, working, playing, and exploring.
Because We Need a Frontier
The success of our unmanned space probes and commercial satellites has led some critics to say that human space flight is unnecessary because robots can do the job better. This is shortsighted. We send people into orbit because orbit is the first step to getting anywhere else. And that is the true purpose of spaceflight: to send people elsewhere, to have people living and working in space, to create new homes for humanity.
Why is that important?
History teaches, over and over, that societies that have pushed their frontiers have prospered; those that have not have withered. Space is the ultimate, boundless frontier. No society has ever gone wrong betting on the frontier. Nations are invigorated spiritually, and prosper economically, by challenging and finding new uses for new frontiers.
Humanity today desperately needs to break free of its confines and breathe the invigorating air of a new frontier before it drowns in its own juices. The human soul has an unconscious yearning for wider horizons, nobler ambitions – a place to direct its energies, a place to gain mental and spiritual muscle in pushing against physical barriers. This yearning of the soul will express itself one way or the other. Either it will be directed outward to healthy objectives, or it will turn inward on itself and find increasingly neurotic and self-indulgent expression in social conflict and narcissism.
Space offers us a new frontier for exploration and adventure, opening the way to new forms of thought and expression, culture and art, law and government. The opening of “the New World” to western civilization brought about an unprecedented 500-year period of growth and experimentation in science, technology, literature, music, art, recreation, and government (including the development and gradual acceptance of democracy). The presence of a frontier led to the development of the “open society” founded on the principles of individual rights and freedoms. Many of these rights and freedoms are being placed under increasingly stringent limitations as human population grows and humanity moves towards a “closed society,” where eventually everyone eats the same, speaks the same, and dresses the same. Cultures that do not explore, die!
Because Space Will Inspire Our Best
In this age of the bottom-line, it is natural to look for concrete economic returns to our investments. But not all rewards can be easily measured, and we need to remember Albert Einstein’s admonition that “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
In 1913, recruiting crewmembers for his Antarctic expedition, explorer Earnest Shakleton placed the following newspaper ad: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” More than 5,000 men answered the call. They didn’t do so because of bad employment prospects; the British economy was at its prewar peak. So why did they clamor for the opportunity to risk life and limb for an uncertain reward?
They answered because they wanted to be a part of history.
In exactly the same spirit, the Sputnik generation answered the challenge of space. They worked long hours to learn and apply the difficult science and engineering skills that they would need to put footprints where no human footprints had ever been before, and hoped it would be their boots that would make them. No quest for material gain or abstract altruism could inspire that level of dedication and sacrifice, but the grand adventure of reaching new worlds kindled the best minds of a generation. The legacy of the race to the moon is not a half-dozen faded flags and a few footprints in the lunar dust. It is an educated workforce that has turned its talents to many other high-tech challenges, from computer design to medicine. Putting footprints where no footprints have been will always have the power to inspire hard work and discipline, with all their attendant benefits to society as a whole, and there are plenty of new worlds left for that purpose.
Because We Must
The short answer to why we go into space is simply that “we must.”
Staying at home, waiting to run out of resources or to be wiped out by the next asteroid strike is not really an option. We demand better alternatives to meeting our energy needs than carpeting the Earth with solar cells and blackening the sky with wind generators. And it is simply alien to our human nature to look away from a great adventure.
The ultimate purpose of going into space is to live and work there – just as the ultimate purpose of exploring the New World was settlement, not merely to wait for reports from automated vehicles. We do not send our cameras to the Grand Canyon; we go ourselves. The United States sent Lewis and Clark not just to describe the American West, but to learn where and how people could live there. People have always found ways to prosper in unique environments, however harsh, and we will do so on other worlds. We cannot begin to live and work in space without first going there. And it is human destiny to escape the cradle of our planet of birth. In response to the question, “Can we afford space?” the answer is most decidedly yes. The more important question is: “Can we afford not to go?” and the answer is most definitely no.