Why do we have a space program anyway? Manypeople in the past have asked this very same question. They usually continueon, "We should spend the money fixing our problems here on Earth first."
This is a good question and a reasonable assertion regarding where wespend our science dollars. Some of the old answers such as "Because exploringis in our souls," or "Because it is our destiny", seem a little trite to theconcerned taxpayer. So why dowe go?
Exploring, in the past, has almost always delivered much more ineconomic or scientific benefits than the original explorers could ever haveimagined. Think of Lewis or Clark standing in downtown PortlandOregon today, or even better, ChristopherColumbus standing in Times Square. It would bebeyond their imaginations. There would be the same feeling of amazement if NeilArmstrong could look up at the enormous pressurized structures that willprobably exist on the moon in a hundred years time. Exploring really IS what wedo. If we hadn't pushed out from the plains of Africathose thousands of years ago, we probably wouldn't have survived until now andwe certainly wouldn't have been as widespread and successful a species as wenow are. Space is just the next big step that we have to take if we are tosurvive and develop as a species. To do otherwise will result in stagnation andour eventual demise.
The next question a skeptic might ask is "Why don't we just spend themoney on specific scientific needs like curing AIDS or Cancer?" The answer isthat we do already spend huge amounts on problems like those. The differencewith space exploration is dissimilar to specific issues like the above; itrequires work in so many different and seemingly unrelated fields. Spaceexploration requires research in materials science, medicine and human biology,electronics, computers, propulsion systems, energy production, nanotechnology,communications, weather forecasting, waste-recycling systems, geology...the listis almost endless. It involves almost everything that we as humans do.Therefore we can expect breakthrough technologies in all of these fields, somecompletely unexpected. The impact on our overall economy is almost immeasurablein terms of new products and services being created from us trying to makespaceflight possible. No other field ofscientific endeavour delivers as much.
The Earth is such a small part of the universe, almost infinitesimallysmall compared to what else is out there. Is it realistic to expect us toignore all of that? It's like staying in the same town all of your life. Thatmight be fine for some people, but for others, the more they travel the morethey become addicted to the fascination of seeing new things for the firsttime. That first time you lean over the Grand Canyon,or your first Hawaiian sunset. One day our descendants will ask if people ofthe 21st century were claustrophobic about having to live on onlyone planet.
The next reason we go concerns resources. The peoples of the developingworld will never attain a standard of living comparable to the advanced Westernnations unless they have access to natural resources. Energy,metals, fresh water, etc. If we only continue to acquire our resourceswithin the closed system that is our planet Earth we will eventually run out ofmany of those materials essential to an industrialized society. When resourcesbecome scarce people tend to squabble over what's left. Considering our speciespropensity for violence that could be a disaster for all of us. We neednew inexhaustible resources, ones where we do not pollute our air or watertrying to extract them. There is only one place where these resources exist incopious quantities and that place is off world. It sounds like sci-fi but it'sreally just a question of putting our minds to it and going and doing it.
Finally I can give theultimate reason for continuing our journey into space,it is for the ultimate genetic need of all living species...survival. Thedinosaurs not only lived but they dominated this planet for far longer than manhas been around. They survived for millions of years. Overnight, theydisappeared forever, the victims of a cosmic catastrophe. A giant asteroidplowed into the Earth and within a year, most species on the planet were wipedout on the land and in the oceans. It is not a question of whether anotherlarge rock traveling at 40,000 miles per hour will have our name on it; it is aquestion of WHEN. When that day eventually comes, will we be prepared for it?Or will we go the way of the dinosaurs, to be replaced by some other smallanimal that fills in the gaps left by those that die? The dinosaurs diedbecause they did not have a space program. If the same happens to our species,who would be the least intelligent; the dinosaurs who didn't see what wascoming and couldn't do anything about it, or us, who could see the potentialconsequences but chose not to do anything about them?
Richard Godwin is the NationalSpace Society's Ad Astra Editorial Liaison.