Like so many people I’ve been completely gripped by the New Horizons mission to Pluto – a gift to humanity that, for the moment, keeps on giving. The exploration of the Pluto system completes the initial reconnaissance of our classical solar system, for we have now visited all the planets (putting aside disputes about Pluto’s status) with probes. Though this process really began in 1961 with the Soviet Venera 1 mission to Venus, the probe lost contact before it made its flyby and thus the first successful visit to another planet came the following year, with Nasa’s Mariner 2, which also went to Venus. From that time forward, a quite staggering number of probes have been sent to explore our immediate neighbourhood.
Questions are frequently raised about the cost and purpose of space exploration, with a variety of arguments put forward that it is a waste of money. Yet, when we consider the returns from investment in space, scientifically, philosophically and economically, it is clear that such ventures are not only vital to understanding our place in the universe, but also offer many positive outcomes and benefits.
Exploration of the solar system not only fills people with a sense of wonder and excitement, it also reminds us just how unique our own planet is and how utterly inhospitable the rest of the planets are – for Homo Sapiens. Ideally this should inspire us to protect our planet – just as the first photographs of the Earth from space were a huge inspiration to green and global peace movements back in the 1960s. Seen from space, it is completely clear that the Earth is one planet we all must share, not some disparate mosaic of places so different that conflict between us must be inevitable.
The famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the solar system, in which our home is a mere one pixel against the immensity of space, showed us once again what a tiny oasis we live on. One pixel, that’s all we have, and we really need to stop trashing the joint.
The exploration of space may be carried out by national space agencies, and their flag waving may seem parochial, but that is just a reflection of the immense pride in this huge and noble achievement. Space exploration is for everyone – for all humankind. As the International Space Station has shown, when it comes to space, the scientists and astronauts of different nations cooperate with a warmth and eagerness that is admirable, because they know that their work goes far beyond petty nationalisms. Obviously the space program was born of a kind of international competition, but even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia were working together in space to their mutual benefit, and, arguably, for all our benefits. When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon in 1969, the whole world rejoiced. This was not merely an American achievement, it was arguably the most colossal achievement of the human race’s entire history. A life-form descended from an ape had somehow managed to leave its home-world and travel to another world. Wow.
Our exploration of our solar system and the vastness of space beyond has not only allowed us to throw off mistaken ideas about the place of the Earth in the solar system, it has taught us our address in the universe. We are, at present, mapping the entire sky in an attempt to put together a map of the visible universe. We now know precisely where we are in the Milky Way Galaxy and where our galaxy lies in relation to other galaxies in our local group. We now know that at the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole – Sagittarius A*, around which our unremarkable but life-giving star orbits, along with anything between 100 and 400 billion other stars.
We know that our own galaxy is but one galaxy among billions of other galaxies whirling, and it seems, accelerating through space. We know that the universe is not some permanent, static thing, but something that was born and has the potential to die, and is, indeed, expanding. We now know the age of the universe (c. 13.82 billion years); we know the age of the sun (c.4.57 billion years) and the planets (Earth, c. 4.54 billion years). Previously our ignorance of these things meant that we were dominated by superstition, with all the calamities and oppression that religion has brought to humanity throughout its long history. I accept that religion has played an important role in the origins of organised human society, yet its rigid, inflexible and wrong-headed ideas which justify intolerance, autocracy, homophobia, misogyny and genocide have no place in the modern world. Understanding the origins of the universe and of our own sun and planets, understanding how the planets and stars move in space and understanding how all this can be attributed purely to the laws of physics is helping us to throw off the shackles of these restrictive and punitive beliefs. Further exploration can only push superstitions about our origins and those of the Earth itself to the margins, and, in the context of the recent barbarism in the name of religion and widespread ignorance that denies the reality of climate change, this can’t happen soon enough.
By no means has all of this been done through space-based probes, but exploration of the universe began, of course, with the human eye and telescopes. In recent decades, however, the ability to deploy telescopes to space has greatly improved our knowledge and vision of the universe. Indeed, since the 1970s, more than eighty probes have been sent into Earth’s orbit and beyond measuring our planet, the solar system, galaxy and wider universe in gamma rays, x-rays, visible and infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.
The new telescopes being developed for deployment on both Earth and in space, the Square Kilometre Array, the James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the “imaginatively” named Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope to name a few, will allow us, for example, to find planets in neighbouring star systems with an accuracy of which we have only dreamed. This is key information not just for refining our understanding our origins and how unique or typical our planet and planetary system is in space, but also for developing maps of our neighbourhood which may one day be necessary should we ever need to look beyond our solar system for a new home, or indeed, be driven to colonise the other planets in our solar system.
Such distant outcomes seem almost pointlessly farfetched, yet the knowledge and wisdom we gain from this – the insights into questions as fundamental as the prevalence of life in the universe, whether or not we are alone, and whether or not we can one day expand our horizons, come at such a relatively cheap price that it would be foolish not to gain this knowledge. Humans have, after all, always looked beyond the horizon. It’s how we colonised our own world in the first place.
Such high minded motivations aside, there are also huge economic and environmental benefits which derive from space exploration and the space program. Consider all the technological spin-offs that have come from the space industry in the past – it’s a very long list, but here are a few highlights – solar cells, chemical detection devices, scratch resistant plastic, anti-icing systems for aircraft, light-emitting diodes, fire-fighting equipment, water purification, cordless tools, powdered lubricants, air-pollution extraction, freeze-drying, improved heart pumps, robotic artificial limbs, invisible braces, improved insulation materials… Many other technologies which already existed have been refined and improved by scientists working on space programs. Take for example the chemical detection devices used to sniff out gases on other worlds or deep space – these “artificial noses” have a huge range of actual and potential applications on Earth.
Our knowledge of our own planet, particularly with regard to our understanding of the climate, atmosphere, and surface and ocean temperatures has expanded enormously thanks to an ever-growing list of Earth-observation satellites. Such programs as the ESA’s Copernicus Program, which has already launched two of six planned satellites to observe weather, vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas, atmospheric temperatures, will allow us to foresee and predict changes on our own planet and help us to act accordingly. Arguably, such satellites might be considered more vital and practical than those visiting other parts of the solar system, yet even these programs attract similar questions about the value of the investment.
Rather than raising questions about spending money on science such as this, people should really turn their attention to the million and one other things humanity wastes its money on and question those priorities first. Consider, for example, the billions of dollars given in subsidies to the fossil fuel industries; the tax breaks dolled out to the hugely wealthy and to religious institutions, the opulent waste of our overconsumption, the recent bail-out of banks and the horrifically expensive and destructive wars we fight. Investing just a fraction of this waste in cutting-edge research would advance humanity’s interests enormously and move us into a cleaner, greener future.
As someone who believes in a strong state system where wealth is taxed sufficiently to provide high quality services to the entire population and fund intellectual, artistic and humanitarian endeavours, it goes without saying that the first priority of a government should be bread and butter portfolios such as health and education. Yet, with adequate taxation there should be plenty of money to fund space exploration and space-based research, along with all other viable fields of enquiry. Space exploration is, at the end of the day, not that expensive. The Curiosity rover is a ground-breaking, prestige mission that has put a plutonium-powered, multi-functioning, mobile robotic laboratory on Mars which could potentially continue to explore the red planet for the next fifteen years – and it cost only 2.5 billion dollars. As a lump sum, this may seem a lot of money, but then, consider the fact that stealth bombers cost two billion dollars each and the US has, to our knowledge, built 21 of them. Unlike the Curiosity rover, they are not helping us to consider fundamental questions such as whether or not life may have first originated on Mars.
It must be said that investment in military technological development has also produced a long range of admirably useful and important spin-off technologies. Yet such research could just as easily be conducted with peaceful, civilian purposes as its primary goal, and the cost of military hardware is outrageous to the point of scandalous, when we consider the destructive application of these machines.
Not only does such research benefit us, it makes a net profit. At present, defence spending in the US accounts for 24.5% of total spending, whereas NASA’s budget equates to 0.5%. Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo program cost one twentieth of the 2.4 trillion dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Apollo program employed roughly 409,000 people, many of whom gained ground-breaking experience in the development of new skills and technologies, the two wars led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people and practically bankrupted the United States. It may not be an equitable comparison, but it gives a pretty clear sense of where money might be better spent. And consider this – because of the high-end, high-value tech spin-offs that come from NASA and associates, it is estimated that for every $1 invested, between $7 and $14 are generated, which is a pretty neat profit however you look at it.
Many start-up companies are now working towards developing asteroid mining industries. As difficult as the task might prove to be, the benefits could be incalculable. Asteroids in our neighbourhood contain enormous, untapped deposits of rare and important minerals of which we have but a finite amount on our own planet. Potentially, these minerals can be extracted in space and transported to Earth without destroying our own vital ecosystems. If the industry ever manages to get off the ground, we could one day see an end to mining on Earth and instead gain all our mineral needs from space. What a relief this would be for our fragile environment. Knowing what is out there in the first place allows us to imagine such alternatives.
These are just some of the practical benefits of space exploration, put in harder, economic terms. Yet in truth, the real benefits we gain from this exercise go far beyond anything as tawdry as money. Space exploration is a source of great wonder and inspiration and it is a important way for us to contextualise ourselves and our existence, in the vastly wider and utterly indifferent cosmos. The Cassini probe has been studying and photographing Saturn and its moons since 2004, and has provided us with some of the most breath-taking images of the solar system’s beauty – the tiger stripes of Enceladus, the hydrocarbon lakes on the surface of Titan, the strange blue hexagon at Saturn’s north pole. Space exploration offers immense pleasure through the discovery of beautiful things.
No one expected Pluto to look as beautiful as it does. Even the most enthusiastic planetary scientists would have thought you were smoking crack if you told them they’d find tall mountains of water ice and flowing glaciers of frozen gases on a geologically active world, or a hazy, blue nitrogen sky. The sheer beauty of this distant world has made our lives richer and we can only see these images because we made the effort to go there. I say to anyone who doubts whether or not the small price paid for this mission was worth it to take a really good look at the picture below, in high resolution, on a very wide screen. Science fiction, eat your heart out.