When Galileo first pointed his telescope towards the moon, he might never have imagined that humans would someday be able to set foot on this celestial body. The human quest for knowledge didn’t stop from man’s first journey to space in 1961, nor did it end when the first man landed on the moon. Even amidst all the social, economic and emotional crises created by the coronavirus pandemic, a new wave of excitement is embracing humanity from the news of a successful landing on Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover and China’s Zhurong.
Although these successes in space exploration show exciting progress in our technology, one can’t help but ask if such progress deserves to be celebrated? At a time where our world is facing countless issues such as poverty, environmental destruction, a pandemic and social inequality, exploring space should be the last thing on our list. Since 1958, NASA has spent nearly 650 billion USD, begging the question: couldn’t this money be potentially used to find us a solution to all these other problems? Who does space exploration benefit? Why are we still excited about it?
As is the case of every story, there are two sides to this. One side highlights the numerous problems we are facing on earth, one good example being the current climate crisis. Climate change is real and happening right now, and new research implies that the point at which it becomes irreversible may come faster than previously predicted. This irreversible tipping point may leave us with a future where our planet and life as we know it may even cease to exist.
Having such a huge responsibility to take action about climate change, we are still committed to exploring the world beyond. Here lies the beauty and bravery of humanity’s pursuit of knowledge, which is what solved problems in human history. The technology packed into Perseverance, or Zhurong, for example, would be sufficient to solve a lot of our problems. Take for instance, the question of renewable energy resources and reducing carbon emissions: if our eyes had not been turned towards the vast skies above, we might never have developed such technologies in the first place. This is reason enough for humanity to stand for space exploration, justify spending big on it, and celebrate the successes we have achieved.
In addition, this exploration of the unknown helps us better understand who we are, where we came from, and fulfils the aspects of our life without which our existence as an intelligent species would be redundant. The pursuit of knowledge is relevant and justified regardless of the circumstances we are in because it is a means of empowering people and, in a bigger sense, the whole world.
The issues we bring up as reasons not to invest in space exploration can only be solved if we continue to pursue scientific knowledge, and this pursuit is part of what defines us as humans and intelligent beings. World powers competing and succeeding in exploration is good news for humanity rather than wasted resources, and someday, we may enjoy the results of collaboration in exploration rather than competition. Imagine a future where the US, China, Russia, and every other country use their best minds and combined resources to contribute to exploring the universe and bringing knowledge and value to humanity.