This is a deeply problematic question.
The subtext behind this question of course is, “space travel holds little to no value to humanity.” Also, “space travel somehow takes away resources from things that actually help humanity.” Both of these subtexts are so false that it feels like gaslighting to informed people.
The child-like over-simplification of such a complex issue feels to space enthusiasts as though it is deliberately designed to make us feel stupid. That may not be the case, but that is how it feels.
This question is rarely spoken by someone who is genuinely trying to get information. It’s a manipulative question, usually coming from someone who has already decided how they feel and is trying to push an agenda.
Nothing more than Feelings
So first I should address a big part of the problem. For people like me who identify as “transhuman” or “space-nerd” or “futurist”, this question is deeply emotional.
But that’s my problem. I know logically that people ask this question out of a genuine desire to help their fellow humans and I need to remember that. Like many other space and technology enthusiasts, my mild autism can throw a wrench into my communication when dealing with issues like this. Instead of debating in a healthy way I would resort to condescending comments or accuse people of not caring about our future. But mostly I just hid from this question because I could not deal with it emotionally.
From a logical perspective, asking “Why are we going to space when we have problems here on Earth?” is like asking “Why are you taking our kids to therapy when they’re misbehaving right here in our home?” or “Why are you buying that ladder and climbing on top of the house when the roof is leaking inside?” How does one formulate a response to questions like this?
Emotionally, as someone who has attached his identity and mental-health to the long-term success of the human race and our mission of spreading precious life into the galaxy, a question like this can feel like a transgender person being asked, “Why are you wasting all those resources getting that surgery when you could be doing something to help our community?”
In other words, to me and some of the more passionate space-nerds, this question feels like an attack on who we are as people. It feels like someone trying to tear apart the hopes and dreams of not just a few individuals, but of all humanity. I know that’s not rational. It’s not their fault for making us feel this way. It’s a fair question given people’s access to space-related information. But emotions are difficult to regulate so people who ask this question need to understand what is actually happening in the minds of people like me when we hear it.
But people still need an answer, so here we go…
Our Planet Has Problems
What are these problems here on Earth? I can list a few off the top of my head: climate change, war, natural disasters, poverty, hunger, and a whole array of medical issues.
Climate change is an obvious one. The space industry has already contributed massively to the fight against climate change. Satellites give us data and the science being conducted at NASA is key to understanding what is actually happening to our planet, and for fighting against the deniers. The technology being developed to keep people alive in space has had numerous offshoots that have helped combat climate change. Long-term the possibilities are far greater. NASA invented carbon capture technologies, some of which are able to turn air pollution into food. Low Earth orbit could be used as a manufacturing and energy production frontier, getting much of our dangerous and harmful industries off Earth where they won’t do harm. These ideas sound crazy to us now but they are fully viable from a technical standpoint and steam engines and indoor plumbing were both just crazy ideas at one point.
War is less obvious but still heavily impacted by the space industry. We have the old cliche yet very true statement that space is so inspiring to so many that it brings us together. Seeing the Earth from above can make you realize how precious and fragile we all are. It’s sappy but it’s true. I believe the space-race is part of why Russia and the United States never turned the cold war into a real war. Space gave both countries a clear economic reason to work together instead of going to war. Right now SpaceX is launching thousands of satellites designed to bring internet to every country in the world, giving us all equal access to information and communication, giving everyone new avenues toward peace and understanding. Plus the fact that war is often fought over resources and the resources available in our solar system alone are effectively limitless. There’s more I can say about war but it gets technical and complicated.
The space industry helps with natural disasters of course by driving the general science industry and through satellite imagery that helps us understand how our planet and atmosphere work.
Poverty is a tougher issue, but the space industry does nothing to hurt this situation. The space industry could become the next economic boom that makes the computer industry look like Beanie Babies. Yes, this will help rich people more than poor people if all you’re looking at is raw numbers and economics, but it will help everyone, and the same argument could be made for cell phones, computers, air conditioners and indoor plumbing. If you look at it in terms of numbers of lives saved and hungry people fed, the space industry benefits third-world nations far more than it does billionaires. NASA boasts that economists calculate that every dollar spent on NASA has brought three dollars into our economy. Well, private companies can build the same rockets as NASA and do it at a fraction of the cost to tax payers.
Hunger is another easy one as satellite imagery has already revolutionized farming in third world countries and there is far more that can be done using that technology.
And medicine is ridiculously easy to argue as the majority of space research is medical in nature. There is years worth of life-saving research that is on hold because researchers can’t afford to send tests to the International Space Station. Biology works very differently in micro gravity. Microbes grow differently and therefore the types of medicines that can be produced in space can be wildly different from what we can produce on Earth. There are already treatments developed in space that are saving people’s lives. There’s even a company that is confident they could use micro gravity to 3D print human organs that are immune to rejection, and another that wants to produce ultra high precision surgical lasers that can’t be made in Earth’s crushing gravity. That’s just in research and manufacturing. Once we can afford to send actual patients into space to give them treatments in low-gravity, it could open up all sorts of possibilities.
On top of helping to solve serious world problems, the space industry can help solve other problems we didn’t know we cared about. Space technology has already improved the efficiency and safety of airplanes, cars, air conditioners and a whole host of other things. In zero gravity, manufacturing is easier for a wide array of products. Gravity crushes everything all the time and we don’t realize how problematic it is until it’s gone and a whole array of possibilities open up. If we can get launch costs down, many of these ventures start to become viable. We can have more precise tools and much faster fiber optics just to name a couple examples.
You also have the huge moral argument that if we are the only species in the galaxy capable of doing this, which it’s looking overwhelmingly like we are, then we have a profound moral obligation to get out there so we can assist the other species if they exist and what’s more likely is that we will only find single-celled organisms out there, if we find life at all. In that case, our moral obligation increases exponentially. We have a duty to our galaxy to spread life everywhere we can, and to take care of what little life we may find.
And now billionaires and other rich people will be going to space. On the surface this may feel wasteful, and that’s reasonable to feel that way when you haven’t studied the deeper economics of the space industry or understand how engineering works in the real-world. We must remember, this is all money that rich people were previously spending on yachts and cocaine. Now it’s going to build the technologies that can save our species. Joy rides are just a bonus.
Take a Look At Yourself Before Judging
The other reason this question is upsetting is that it is not fairly applied across our society. “Why are you X, instead of helping people here in Y?” Try applying this question to other aspects of our lives and see how it feels.
“Why are you going on that cruise when we have problems on dry land?”, “Why are you watching football when we have problems that aren’t a game?”, “Why are you drinking alcohol or coffee when so many people don’t have clean drinking water?”, “Why are you driving to that convention when your own city has problems?”, “Why are you getting a cat when tigers are going extinct?”, “Why are you ordering GrubHub when children are starving in the world?”, “Why are you building that model when we have full-scale problems?”, “Why are you having kids when you could be babysitting and giving another mother a desperately needed night off?”, “Why are you playing video games, watching a movie or reading a book when we have problems in the real world?”
For some reason, it feels like it’s mostly space enthusiasts and other wrongfully demonized groups who get this question. The space industry costs a fraction of what the sports or cosmetics industries cost, does far more to help the human race, yet receives far more criticism.
I have however, heard this question asked of Black Lives Matter supporters. It goes something like “Why are you protesting a handful of criminals getting killed when we have natural disasters and war in the world?”
Basically what I’m saying is that many of us need to take a step back when casting our moral judgements and get a bigger picture.
Space Enthusiasts Want to Ruin Space and Abandon Earth?
This may be why I react so emotionally to this question, because I know what usually comes next. It’s some kind of subtle accusation that I and the rest of the space-nerd community don’t care about planet Earth, that we just want to abandon it, letting everyone here just suffer and die, so we can go to some paradise in the stars that we acquire by conquering and destroying whatever is out there. Sometimes they even claim we hate nature and want to become cold, unfeeling robots.
Not everyone who asks this question thinks this way, but it’s hard not to hear that hateful subtext. Obviously no one wants to abandon Earth or nature. The whole point of space travel is to support Earth and help life grow. We need space travel because we are scared that without it, life on Earth will die. The implication that we want to abandon Earth is a deeply unfair and manipulative tactic. It’s just as problematic as claiming pro-choice people simply have a fetish for killing babies.
However, it’s not the fault of the people asking this question. The situation is naturally confusing and scary. The science fiction industry is largely at fault, more interested in driving sales than accurately portraying science and engineering. Also NASA. As much as I love NASA, they have done a profoundly terrible job of communication and public relations over the years.
I think part of the issue is that many people look down on the human race as a whole. They feel we aren’t worthy, that we have destroyed this planet and so we don’t deserve the potential luxuries that are out there in space. I get that. We make a lot of mistakes. We have done a lot of horrible things as a species, but we need to remember that we also have the power to fix these problems. It’s important to remember that despite our many faults, no other creature or entity we know of could have done a better job.
Much of our climate change media has revolved around doom and gloom, and stupid, evil humans who just don’t care. It creates a defeatist attitude and doesn’t inspire people to make a difference. It creates an idea that humans are evil, spitting on God’s creation, that we’re just going through life selfishly destroying and taking. Instead our climate change media could focus on the future, on recognizing people who make a difference, on triumphs, and potential solutions, and how amazing it will be when we figure these things out. We could have a whole other view of our species that actually moves us forward.
I didn’t attach my identity to my gender, race or religion so much as I attached it to all of humanity, so hateful things said about the human race hurt just as much as racist or sexist things. I think the human race is amazing and beautiful and there is no species in the universe I would rather be. We have problems but we will survive, we will triumph, and we will build a future brighter than anyone thought possible.