Leading American astrophysicist Carl Sagan once declared that the survival of the human race “might be owed to a relentless few, drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands, and new worlds.” Sagan’s sage words raise an important historical question: why did early explorers like Leif Erikson or Ferdinand Magellan depart their homes when they had everything to lose and no idea of what they might find? Some scholars insist that they were motivated solely by fame and fortune while others contend that they explored the frontiers of their world because of “an everlasting itch for things remote” (Melville). Regardless of their motivation, they expanded the horizon beyond what was previously imaginable, from new innovations to aid their seafaring to the discovery of crops that spurred an agricultural revolution in Europe. Similarly, humanity’s effort to extend its habitable frontier to the interplanetary scale, whether it ultimately succeeds or fails, will drive global innovation and allow for the preservation of our Earth.
Like other major investments of scientific resources in the past, space exploration promises benefits beyond its primary goal. The Cold War lasted from 1947 to 1991, seeing bitter hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States in a struggle for survival. Neither country won this undeclared war, but the effect of this epoch cannot be overstated. The technological innovations of the era, from the invention of the Internet to the usage of nuclear power for energy, made society into what it is today. The time called for enormous research and development, and Big Science, with the proper funding, delivered. If today’s society focused more of its resources on interplanetary exploration, the number of innovations produced would make the whole endeavor worth the effort by functionally transforming society. NASA’s research already produces societal dividends from public safety advances with better water-purification systems to medical breakthroughs with cancer therapy to environmental advances with renewable energy. These innovations all come from a budget that has never reached more than 4.5% of the US’s GDP. Creating an interplanetary future need not succeed in order to revolutionize society; the devotion of adequate resources alone would bring about profound beneficial change in a way that ignoring space exploration never could.
Space exploration and the preservation of the Earth are not mutually exclusive goals. Indeed, the success of NASA’s Technology Transfer program suggests that the two work hand-in-hand. Creating an interplanetary future, specifically because of its implications for the survival of the human species, will likely even bring countries together to pool resources and talent to tackle the most formidable issues of this venture. The multinational effort may also be the artifact that unites the world’s nations, like the International Space Station did, and allows for the diplomatic capital to address critical Earth-specific issues like climate change, the rapid extinction rate, and deforestation.
While an interplanetary future is not yet feasible, the current pace of innovation makes it imminent. NASA has estimated that a people-carrying spaceship to Mars would weigh 1250 tons, less than the 4500-ton International Space Station currently in orbit. With improved technologies, like those incorporated into NASA’s Space Launch System, this vehicle could handily achieve escape velocity of 11.2 km/s to leave the Earth’s orbit. Every day, scientists come closer to solving other potential issues such as fuel storage or allowing the crew to live on Mars. For example, NASA is working on the Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer project to store propellant in space, prevent fuel loss, and allow for more efficient thrusters. Reaching Mars, rocket fuel could even be manufactured from the ubiquitous perchlorate that the Curiosity rover and other probes have discovered. The most salient obstacle may be making Mars habitable; however, UC Berkeley’s Professor Berliner and McKay suggest a plan for that endeavor in their paper “The Terraforming Timeline.” With enough water, carbon dioxide, and nitrate, all of which are known to be on Mars, terraforming through a “warming phase” and an “oxygenation phase” to allow for Earth-like conditions is practicable (Berliner and McKay). Photoautotrophs and eventually other chemoheterotrophs could be introduced as food sources, and humans would be able to walk freely in this temperature-favorable and oxygen-rich Martian environment.
Striving towards an interplanetary future is indeed an achievable and worthwhile goal to secure humankind’s long-term survival while also preserving a clean environment for our posterity. Exploration may be expensive and precarious, but as Sagan duly remarked, “if the dinosaurs had had a space program, they would not be extinct.”
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International Space Exploration Coordination Group. “Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration.” NASA, Sept. 2013, www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/Benefits-Stemming-from-Space-Exploration-2013-TAGGED.pdf. Accessed 19 Nov. 2018.
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