This is a chapter from a possible future book about building a city on Mars. Please let me know what you think in the comments, or by email. Thanks!
All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct. — Carl Sagan
The benefits of space research are not universally appreciated or understood. Some feel that it diverts resources away from other important problems, or that it doesn’t produce a sufficient return on investment. However, a closer look will reveal that everyone benefits from space research and development, not only those nations who conduct missions, and we benefit significantly.
The most common argument against space research is that there are more serious problems on Earth that we should focus our attention on, such as disease, poverty, economic inequality, climate change and/or other social and environmental problems, before trying to expand into space. While this viewpoint may seem valid on the face of it, the facts are:
- There have always been, and probably always will be, problems on Earth.
- These problems are being addressed, and conditions on Earth worldwide are getting better every year.
- Expansion into space will assist in addressing all these issues anyway.
If we wait for Earth to be “fixed” before going to space, we will never go. There were problems in Spain when Chris Colombus set sail for the New World, and in England when James Cook departed for the Pacific, yet these voyages of discovery produced increased prosperity and scientific understanding, countless innovations, and the discovery of vast and beautiful new lands. To be fair, they also involved genocide followed by generations of suffering for indigenous peoples, but we probably won’t have this problem on the other worlds of our Solar System.
Things have never been better on Earth. We’ve never had less slavery, disease, poverty, war, hunger, or homelessness. We’ve never lived longer, had so many tools, had such immediate access to all kinds of information, or been able to connect and communicate with so many others. Generally speaking, life is getting better for everyone, worldwide, all the time. The reason why many people believe the opposite is partially due to the popular fantasy that the past was safer and more comfortable than it actually was. On top of this, the media reports much more bad news than good, leading to a false perception of our present situation.
Investment in space does not diminish the ongoing improvement of life on Earth, but encourages it. Observing trends in technological innovation and social entrepreneurship, we can discern that:
- Humanity’s problems are being and will continue to be solved, regardless whether or not we invest time and money into space research. Lots of people are working on all kinds of important problems, relating to food, water, health, peace, energy, and so on, and this won’t suddenly stop when we start building bases on Mars.
- Space research produces significant technological innovation, while also developing minds, benefitting national economies, giving us insight into the cosmos and ourselves, and improving international relations, all of which add up to making life on Earth a whole lot better.
A popular misconception is that space research consumes a large fraction of public funds. However, it’s actually small compared with other categories of government spending. NASA, for example, which is by far the best funded of all space agencies, receives $18 billion per year. This may seem a lot, but it’s actually less than 0.5% of the US federal budget. Compare this with $600 billion spent on the military, or the $90 billion spent on corporate subsidies.
One of the main reasons why space attracts criticism is because it attracts a lot of media attention, which tends to make it a target. Space launches, missions, and discoveries are spectacular and observed by millions. In comparison, significantly larger areas of government expenditure are hidden, or are dull in comparison, and attract much less attention.
Interest in exploration, development, and settlement of space is growing quickly, especially among students. Humans are explorers by nature, and there will always be those of us who desire to see what’s beyond the horizon; those whose souls exult in the idea of huge areas of open land where they can create something new. Some people crave the feeling of the frontier, which is a feeling of immense creative freedom, self-determination, and unlimited possibility. There’s a profound sense of adventure and purpose embedded in the building of something new and timeless like a frontier town, and this is highly attractive to a certain type of people. Why struggle to fit into a dysfunctional or overcrowded society when you can go somewhere new and create a better one, that embodies your values, instead of theirs?
Some humans seem to have a dream of exploration and expansion written in their DNA. These are the ones who will go to Mars, and beyond, and lift our species to a higher plane of existence than ever before. Space is for dreamers and visionaries. We need such people in our society, because they play such a tremendously important role in our evolution. Their imagination and energy pull us upwards and onwards, to the stars.
There are numerous benefits of space research and exploration.
Unique scientific insights are gained by studying the space environment and other worlds. Space research leads to increased understanding in literally every branch of science, including life sciences such as biology and medicine; physical sciences such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, and planetary science; social sciences such as psychology and political science; and formal sciences such as mathematics and computer science.
Everyone on Earth benefits from the advancement of science. The better we understand the Universe, the better we can manage the resources available to us, the more empowered we are to invent new things that make our lives better, and the better the decisions we can make about how to manage and develop our global civilization. Technology is built on scientific understanding. Scientific discovery enables improvements in the production of food, water, energy, materials, buildings, machines, medicines, and every kind of technological product from phones to power plants.
Scientific knowledge is increased by inquiry, investigation, and exploration, whether by peering into atoms, cells, mineral grains, oceanic depths, or the far reaches of space. We’ve learned much about Earth by examining stars, galaxies, other planets, and moons, and we continue to learn more every day. The wealth of data collected by planetary spacecraft such as Mars rovers, for example, teach us more about planets in general, not only Mars.
Gaining a deeper understanding of the Universe gives us the knowledge necessary to secure the survival of humanity and many other Terran species, while creating many opportunities for human advancement and evolution. Space research presents specific challenges that lead to unique achievements and breakthroughs, and expansion into space will provide numerous other benefits beyond simply knowledge.
Space research has produced innovation in materials, communications, computing, transportation, consumer products, and countless other areas. Directly or indirectly, these advancements improve everyone’s quality of life.
These new technologies have not only benefited people living and working in space or the space industry. Technologies developed for space frequently find applications on Earth, and this will continue to be the case. Some examples from the near future include:
- Orbital and suborbital vehicles will displace airplanes, to some degree, by providing services such as rapid transport, package delivery, and resource distribution.
- Communications technologies developed for space will provide everyone on Earth with broadband Internet access.
- Water recycling and food production technologies developed for space can be applied on Earth to improve the efficiency of water and food production and consumption.
- Renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, and geothermal, developed for Mars and other worlds, can be deployed in remote regions of Earth.
Inspiration and education
Space exploration, especially human spaceflight, is the grand adventure of our time, and inspires many people, particularly young people still choosing their career paths, to become astronauts, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. People associate space with the future, advanced technology, robots, spaceships, and distant, exotic worlds, all of which activate the imagination. It’s the reason why science fiction exists as a distinct genre and why many bright young people aspire to work in the space program. Science fiction inspires, and is inspired by, human activities in space.
Increased enrollment in STEM courses provides huge benefits to national economies, as many of the newly educated find work in science or engineering-related sectors instead of (or in addition to) space, such as mining, agriculture, health, communications, IT, biotech, chemicals, construction, defense, and others. Those with a more artistic nature have been inspired by space to produce enduring and inspirational literature, music, and art.
The fact that space research captivates students’ interest greatly facilitates science education. Some school science teachers have started to pitch their lessons in the context of space, or even teach dedicated space science courses, purely because students perceive space as cool and interesting. This engages their attention, enthusiasm, and creativity. Agencies like NASA provide educational content and multimedia at no cost, in addition to opportunities for students to engage with astronauts and the ISS (International Space Station). College and university students benefit from summer programs, internships, and scientific research published by NASA and other space agencies.
Space research helps to build up a nation’s and the world’s intellectual capital, providing valuable experience for scientists, engineers, communicators, and managers who will often migrate from space agencies to science or technology-related industries, academia, or the military. Companies, universities, and governments then benefit from their unique experience and knowledge, which has positive effects on the economy.
People with a background in space are well-respected in the wider community, and with good reason: space presents very difficult problems with little room for error. Involvement in space research not only develops skills, but also confidence, and many ex-space-agency people have gone on to create innovative new companies.
The new technologies that arise from space research also create economic benefits. Commercial applications for products spun off from space research lead to the formation of new companies and revenue streams.
Space research, exploration, and settlement will benefit Earth’s environment.
Earth observation satellites already provide valuable data about weather, climate, the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the oceans to scientists on Earth, which greatly assists with our understanding of Earth’s environment and climate change.
Development of food production systems for space has led to innovations in high-efficiency, environment-controlled indoor farming. This may be the future of food production for cities worldwide, freeing up huge areas of agricultural land that can be returned to the biosphere, thereby reducing species loss, restoring biodiversity, absorbing carbon, and aiding in the reversal of desertification and climate change.
Because of the advantages of low-gravity environments, and because there aren’t any trees, cities, or oceans in the way, it may also eventually be possible to move some of our mining and manufacturing operations off Earth and into space, thereby further reducing ecological destruction and pollution.
Greater world peace
One of the truly great and often unsung benefits of space is the way it brings us all together in a grand adventure. Space exploration seems to speak to something in our souls; perhaps what makes us human is a deep-seated desire to do more, see more and be more. The future calls to us. You can go to almost any country in the world and find people, especially students, fascinated by space exploration and settlement. This shared interest has brought together people from around the world in countless space projects, conferences, expeditions, and competitions.
Much of the conflict on Earth is about resources, suggesting that access to the unlimited resources of space will significantly reduce conflict. If energy, water, metals, etc. are available in virtually limitless quantities from space, there will be much less interest in invading or influencing other countries. Space may be expensive but so is war. Thus, space development leads to greater world peace, and reduces the destruction and wastage of resources associated with war.
History has shown that collaboration in space leads to improved international relations. Because human spaceflight is expensive and difficult, only a few nations have yet attempted it, and they’re often eager to cooperate and share resources and data. Scientists are usually idealistic seekers of understanding, and often eager to share knowledge and experiences with those from other countries if it will yield insights or clues into the workings of our Universe.
Cooperating in space delivers positive outcomes for participating nations in the form of data, technological progress, scientific understanding, educational resources, and improved international relationships.
Exploration and settlement of Mars is so exciting that all major space agencies are currently developing plans. The challenge of sending people to Mars is so great that collaboration between multiple space agencies will almost certainly be necessary, and many have already agreed to do this. This is important for peace, because the spacefaring nations are the superpowers of the world, and the more they cooperate, in whatever field, the less likely they are to engage in major conflict.
Space settlement represents an open future, rather than a closed future. In a closed future, in which we do not expand beyond Earth, we may have to compete more and more intensely for dwindling resources, which could divide us, creating conflict. An open future is one where the potential exists to create abundance for all. It’s a future of peace.
The Overview Effect
Perhaps the greatest positive effect that increased human activity in space will have on our world will come from what is called the “Overview Effect”. This term was coined in 1987 by Frank White, author of “The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution”. The book details the results of his research, interviewing 29 astronauts and cosmonauts, about how viewing Earth from space affected their ideas about themselves, Earth, and the future.
Seeing Earth from space induces a profound shift in perspective. Our planet appears to the observer as a living being, whole and unified. National and state borders are not visible. These artificial separations cannot be seen when observing Earth from space; only the beautiful continents and oceans, and the thin blue haze of atmosphere. It gives the viewer a cosmic perspective, causing them to see Earth as a unified and unique, living planet, suspended in the blackness of space.
Most of our cultural and societal ideas, and politico-economic systems and policies, are based on a belief in separation, especially between people of different nations, races, religions, etc., or between people and the planet. These separations are quite imaginary. We are all part of Earth, tightly bound to it via energy flows, and thus to each other. When seeing the Earth from space, our unity becomes profoundly apparent.
As a growing number of people perceive Earth in this way and experience the Overview Effect, the illusion of separate nations and peoples will dissolve. Many will bring these realisations back to Earth, bringing humanity closer to global unity, world peace, and increased environmental awareness and social responsibility.
The Overview Effect helps make the case for space tourism, space stations, and lunar settlement. The human eye has a field of focus of about 60° (not counting peripheral vision), which means to see the whole Earth requires an altitude of about 6 371 km. This is just above the inner Van Allen radiation belt. From anywhere higher than this out to Luna and well beyond, the viewer will be able to see the entire Earth pretty well. However, considering the financial, health, and engineering challenges of constructing space stations in Earth orbit, the largest group of people to experience the Overview Effect will most likely be those who visit or live on the near side of Luna, for whom Earth will be constantly in view.
Impressed by the profound importance of the Overview Effect, a group of leaders from the space movement, including luminaries such as Anousheh Ansari, Rick Tumlinson, Edgar Mitchell, and George Whitesides, formed the Overview Institute (http://www.overviewinstitute.org) in 2008 to foster and promote the idea. In December of 2012, a documentary about this topic was released titled “Overview”, which you can watch at https://vimeo.com/55073825.
Anyone living in a space settlement, or living on the Moon, would always have an overview. They would see things that we know, but we don’t experience, which is that the Earth is one system, we’re all part of that system, and that there’s a certain unity and coherence to it all. — Frank White
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. — Edgar Mitchell, Apollo astronaut