The billionaires’ space race has turned many people against the idea of space exploration. This is justifiable at face value—our world faces significant fundamental problems of systemic inequality, dangerous environmental degradation, and brutal wars. It seems ludicrous to invest in outer space when we have so many problems to work through right here on Earth. This is compounded by the projects that are being pursued by many of these tech billionaires, such as competing on vanity projects to be the first in space, and setting up a space tourism industry for the super-rich.
Space’s value extends well beyond being a playground for the super-rich, despite recent narratives surrounding the idea. Space exploration has the potential to bring prosperity to all of humanity and is critical to the survival of organic life itself. In order to fuel our modern society, humanity has been digging deeper and deeper into Earth’s crust for resources. This mining has well-documented environmental impacts. Additionally, mining creates incentives for human exploitation in the developing world.
Child slave labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo provides many of the rare minerals present in plenty of our technological devices. However, it does not have to be this way. Asteroid mining may provide a solution to humanity’s resource needs. Locating and extracting valuable minerals from asteroids provides plentiful resources without human or environmental exploitation. Additionally, the processing and refining industries for said minerals could also be located in outer space, removing another major source of pollution and carbon emissions from our planet. We need to recognise that our planet is finite and if humanity is to continue to grow in complexity and resource consumption, we will deplete the resources on Earth.
Space can also provide the solution for our energy needs. While there has been significant progress in the growth of the renewable energy industry and options available, energy demand continues to rise and we have missed our emissions reduction targets. Additionally, renewable energy is not a perfect solution. With its dependence on polluting materials in construction and maintenance, combined with reliance on lithium-ion batteries, renewable energy has not ushered in a green utopia. Nuclear fusion energy is on the brink of providing cheap, clean energy free from nuclear waste or the risk of a meltdown. However, nuclear fusion requires rare isotopes of hydrogen and helium. While these elements are the two most abundant in the universe, they are scarce on Earth. Considerable reserves of helium-3 (a potent nuclear fusion fuel) likely exist on the moon.
If the above examples appear speculative, then a snapshot of everyday technologies developed from our past baby steps into space show how space exploration can propel innovations that improve quality of life. These everyday items and processes include MRI machines, freeze-dried food, braces, the mouse on your computer, prosthetic limbs, and baby formula.
There is a more fundamental reason for space exploration that requires us to take a longer term view of humanity. Life on planet Earth is taken for granted. At any moment, any number of things could end life on this planet. From catastrophic asteroid impacts to runaway climate change to supervolcanic eruptions to gamma-ray bursts; the list of potential extinction events is terrifying. This is compounded by the worrying reality that the only known lifeforms in the universe are found on planet Earth. As far as we know, every experience that any lifeform has ever perceived through any of their senses has occurred on planet Earth (apart from our baby steps onto the moon). If something were to happen to make Earth uninhabitable, we have no evidence to suggest that anything would be able to perceive and experience the wonders of the universe. There would simply be nothing.
That depressing reality is accompanied by a looming threat—even if we fix climate change and a whole host of other existential threats, we know that the Earth will eventually become uninhabitable. The sun is midway through its lifecycle, but as it approaches the end of its life, it will swell to engulf Mercury, Venus, and Earth, swallowing them into its mass. If life is to continue, we must leave our planet in search of another home, or homes. Becoming a multi-planetary civilisation will diminish the risk of extinction and ensure that even if a catastrophe wipes out life on one planet, life will go on elsewhere.
Space exploration can also provide meaning to increasingly complicated life on Earth. Space exploration for the survival of our species provides a source of international cooperation and gives something for people to collectively work towards. The threat of the end of all life in the universe makes our current geopolitical power squabbles appear very insignificant. In this pursuit of survival, we may discover answers to more fundamental questions, such as how life started, how consciousness evolves and how the universe will end?
Humanity must put aside its squabbling—billionaires need to redirect their resources to a collective goal. Not only is this a matter of justice, but a matter of survival.