Monday, March 1, 2021

 Why Go to Space?    

   We recently witnessed the culmination of a stupendous scientific achievement when NASA landed the car-sized rover Perseverance on a rugged area of cold and distant Mars. Now the exciting exploration phase begins. We may even find proof that life once existed there.

   Such missions always bring out the Space Scoffers who argue that we shouldn’t be spending so much to explore space when we have so many dire problems right here on Earth. Why, they ask, are we doing such worthless stuff?

   Why do these scoffers never mention the trillions squandered on our massive military complex that benefits mankind not at all? The staggering 2021 defense budget is $705 billion, yet few question that. The 2021 NASA budget is $23.3 billion, only three percent of what defense is costing us.

   When we first went to the Moon one of the astronauts took a picture of Earth with the desolate alien horizon in the foreground. That photo changed mankind’s collective thinking. It was striking and deeply moving. A small sphere impossibly floating in the blackness of space, and so incredibly beautiful. There were no color-coded nations, no artificial boundaries, only verdant continents and vast cobalt blue oceans and pristine cloud veils. We saw our planet for what it is—a precious home in the hostile cold and the stellar violence and the lonely vastness.

   That astonishing photo had a profound effect. What followed were the beginnings of efforts to preserve and protect our home. The EPA, the NOAA, and annual Earth Day were founded. We banned leaded gas. Congress passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The fledgling environmental movement suddenly grew up and became serious. Many nations joined in. The whole Moon program was worth it for these initiatives alone.

   Of course, we still have major problems with pollution and climate change and explosive population growth and poverty and inequality. And we do need to fix all that, which good people are trying their best to do.

   But only the space program will ultimately save us a few hundred or a thousand years from now. And it will do that with what we're just beginning to learn.

   The Moon was a steppingstone. Mars will be another "giant leap" for mankind. Right now, our species is confined to this vulnerable planet. An asteroid strike, a nuclear exchange, or a virus far more deadly than Covid all have the potential to decimate us. Outposts on the Moon and Mars could be our lifeboats, preserving enough of us so that one day, after the effects of some such catastrophe dissipate, we could re-seed Earth with our kind. No more reasons for taking these steps are necessary, yet as with the Moon program, we are sure to reap an additional incidental bounty of scientific knowledge along the way to Mars. (More about that next week.)

   One unarguable fact looms over all of this. Our star, the sun, cannot last forever. This is true because it only has a finite amount of fuel and it is already middle aged. It does not have to die in order to make our planet uninhabitable. It only needs to shift a fraction either way in its output over time to kill us off.

   The space effort is in its infancy. One day we’ll have to migrate over several generations to some young habitable planet orbiting a young healthy star, or our species will vanish from the Universe. We cannot hope to do that without first learning how. We’re taking the first tentative steps toward that goal.

   The Moon and Mars are teaching us.

   We might compare the space effort to the history of flight. It was just over a century ago that the Wright Brothers took to the sky in their fragile homemade biplane and look what has happened in aviation since. Nobody could have foreseen just how important air travel would become. The current Mars missions, wondrous as they are, only represent the beginnings of what will become an even grander adventure—our migration out among the stars.


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